If 2016’s La La Land is an homage to the glory days of Hollywood, a tale of dreamers whose fantasies merge with reality to take audiences on a journey of sight and sound that’s almost completely fantastical in execution, then 2017’s The Disaster Artist is the antithesis: grounded in reality, rife with failure, and hilariously earnest. Artist is the story of outcasts – shunned either for their looks, lack of talent, or any number of enumerable items they’ll never understand. The story of every individual who looked at the silver screen, saw something they wanted for themselves and resolved to make it happen. The James Franco-directed The Disaster Artist is one of the biggest surprises of 2017. Telling the deeply hilarious, richly compelling, completely true story celebrating the creation of the worst film in cinema, The Room, and which might be just a Best Picture contender.
Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) possesses the look and drive to become a leading actor, yet lacks the courage to release himself from his insecurities when he stands on stage. Enter Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious man with ambition, a seemingly bottomless pit of wealth, and an outward blindness to his lack of traditional talent. Together they forge a friendship that takes them from San Francisco to Hollywood to pursue their dreams of stardom, only to find them crushed by the realities of the film industry. Frustrated by the process, Tommy decides to write, produce, direct, and star in a film inspired completely by his own vision. Brushing aside all notions that neither of them knows what they’re doing, Tommy does whatever he has to do to achieve his vision and give their talent the spotlight. What no one could predict was how his vision would be received.
There are so many wonderful things about The Disaster Artist that they’re hard to explain without spoiling the experience. From the casting to the performances to the precision in recreating scenes from The Room, there’s nothing about Artist that feels forced or phony. This is not an Oscar-grab film, yet the end result is absolutely Oscar-worthy. Why? It boils down to this – it’s a story about two people who love movies and want to be a part of their storied history. All throughout Artist, for every choice Tommy and Greg make, every fight they endure, every sacrifice is all about making their dream come true. Artist ceases to be simply about The Room and becomes a love letter to filmmaking; an ode to those who join pursuit of making movies. This is perhaps the greatest reason that the cast – overflowing with talent like Seth Rogan, Alison Brie, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Paul Scheer, Nathan Felder, Hannibal Buress, Randall Park, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, and many more – doesn’t distract from the central narrative as you’d expect but enhances it. These are all unique performers whose career paths followed their own routes to get them where they are today. Like Tommy and Greg, each refused to be ground up by the Hollywood machine, persevered and overcame. In this way, Artist is a celebration of filmmaking by former underdogs who made good.
To be clear, The Disaster Artist isn’t revisionist by any means. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber drew from the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, written by Sestero and nonfiction writer Tom Bissell. While many biopics would choose to gloss over the nastier, shallower aspects of its leads to humanize them, James selects to embrace these flaws, putting them on display for the world and making the experience of Artist so singularly unique. While much of Tommy remains a mystery, what’s explored is his fragile emotional center. Though boisterous on the outside, he’s incredible sensitive to how his friends react to him, going off the handle at any perceived slight, no matter how small. Greg is less mysterious and more grounded than Tommy, but is still presented as a multidimensional individual whose drive for success comes at a personal and professional cost. One facet in particular that impresses is how meticulous James replicated the experience of The Room within Artist. This isn’t just mimicry, reducing the work of these men to punchlines, but carefully emulating moments that evoke the authenticity of the original work. James’s conscientious approach to storytelling doesn’t stop with the scene work. His embodiment of Wiseau’s ticks, vocal patterns, and physical appearance culminate in a mesmerizing performance that’s one of the best of the year.
There are some that may suggest that Franco’s The Disaster Artist takes the personal journey of two men and lifts it up for public mockery. On this, I must vehemently disagree. Artist is an underdog story that isn’t played as a comedy, but as a personal drama. It’s about two individuals who find their way toward their dream together because of the support each gives the other. Though filled to the brim with comedians, the comedy is largely situational – typically a by-product of Wiseau’s naturally eccentric personality – or tied to actor-delivery related to timing or performance. By and large, however, without fore-knowledge of The Room, there’s little about Artist general audiences will immediately find as amusing or engaging, compared to audiences already clued in to Tommy’s quirks. This isn’t to say that Artist won’t be funny to new audiences, they will just require more time to acclimate to individuals on display. This may be more conspiracy theory than you’d expect from a typical review, but this may very well be intentional by James in his retelling of the story, inserting a subversive element into the experience of Artist. The further into Artist audiences go, the more we learn about Wiseau and Sestero, and the less they become characters in a story, but real, flesh and blood individuals. Suddenly, audience laughter, though genuinely generated from phenomenal performances, takes on a different feel. Are we laughing at the figures we expect to see or the real people that they are? This is the real journey of Wiseau and Sestero as played out in Artist and James Franco makes the audience unwitting witnesses to their painful journey.
The Disaster Artist surprises at every turn. Never reaching the edges of either saccharine drama or gross-out comedy, its sincerity will slowly break through audience preconceptions, revealing the touching, earnest narrative beneath. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and, by the end, you’ll find yourself rooting for Tommy and Greg like never before. And more importantly, you’ll see The Room for what it actually is – the creation of dreamers who never gave up when everyone told them no. Sure it’s incredibly flawed, but no one’s perfect, and in the world of Tommy, imperfection reigns.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.