Monday, December 11, 2017

INFINITE AMBITION, ZERO TALENT: a review of "The Disaster Artist"

Based upon the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Film Ever Made by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
Screenplay Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Directed by James Franco
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Sometimes, there is absolutely nothing better than a spectacularly yet completely unintentional bad film.

Dear readers, I firmly believe that it is basically a miracle than any movie finds itself made at all. To have something that once emerged from the ether, formulated itself onto paper and then, through the hands of a myriad of individuals, found itself fully realized and presented upon the silver screen is unfathomable if we really take the time to think about the entire filmmaking process. To that end, when the film turns out well, the miracle of the film even having been made is exceeded by the success of the quality, and ultimately the response from viewers. It's amazing that more films don't turn out worse than they do.

Now, say we have the type of film that has its pure intentions but somehow, the stars just are not aligned. It can happen to the very best of filmmakers. But how about when the failure is just so sublime that the failure somehow brings success? There have been many films in my life where the sheer awfulness is absolutely brilliant. From big budget nonsense like the preposterous and downright hysterical "Taken 3" (2014) to obscure cult films like the astonishing "The Thing With Two Heads" (1972) starring Rosey Grier (!) as one of the two titular heads, the enjoyment of an unintentionally bad film is at times preferable to viewing films of a higher artistic quality.

With regards to the infamously terrible "The Room" (2003), written, produced, directed by and starring the bizarrely idiosyncratic Tommy Wiseau, I have never seen the film but I have heard about it enthusiastically from many younger friends over the years. Even so, I have never really been that inspired to seek out the film myself, partially because I was curious if perhaps this experience is of a particularly generational quality and also partially because sometimes, it is best to discover these sorts of things on one's own.

That being said, it seems to be more than fitting to have James Franco, actor-writer-director-author-NYU professor and whatever else he gets his restlessly creative hands upon, to gravitate to the story of Tommy Wiseau and "The Room" for his terrific biographical, behind-the-scenes, comedy/drama "The Disaster Artist." Franco, in taking what could have easily been mean-spirited continuous fodder for ruthless ridicule, has instead and smartly fashioned a most affectionate tribute to not only one of the worst films ever made but to its uniquely oddball creator, who, despite his clear lack of talent, just may be a more passionate filmmaker than so many of our established and long jaded successful ones.

Beginning in San Francisco during the late 1990's, James Franco's "The Disaster Artist" stars Dave Franco as Greg Sestero, a 19-year-old aspiring actor who by chance happens to meet the oddly mysterious and bizarrely intense Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) during an acting class. While Tommy's rendition of a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire" is ravaged by his instructor (played by Melanie Griffith--just one of a series of clever cameo appearances), the shy, reserved Greg is enthralled by what he feels is Tommy's fearlessness.

Upon meeting, the two become fast friends and abruptly decide to leave San Francisco to pursue their acting dreams in Los Angeles. As Greg quickly signs up with an agent, the clearly strange Tommy, with the unplaceable accent, unknown age and seemingly bottomless back account is not nearly as fortunate as absolutely, positively no one wishes to professionally associate themselves with him, a series of rejections that culminates with a brutal take-down by Judd Apatow at a Hollywood restaurant. Making matters even worse for Tommy is Greg's slowly budding relationship with a lovely nightclub bartender named Amber (Alison Brie), which fills him with jealousy, mounting insecurities and intense feelings of betrayal and hopelessness.

Despite some of Greg's minor good fortunes, acting roles are in increasingly short supply and soon dry up altogether. While standing upon their rooftop, Greg off-handedly floats the suggestion that he and Tommy should just make their own movie and that way, they would each receive acting projects. For Tommy, within this moment, the lightning of inspiration has struck.

Over the following three years, Tommy crafts his "masterpiece," a screenplay entitle "The Room," which despite is incoherence, Greg fully encourages Tommy's hard work and the duo begins the process of obtaining the equipment, the cast and the crew to make "The Room" a reality. Yet, the filmmaking process becomes increasingly chaotic and often finds Tommy flying off into extreme and abusive forms of narcissism towards his cast and crew, while telling a cinematic story that no one remotely understands and potentially, fully alienating his relationship with Greg, his best friend.

James Franco's "The Disaster Artist" revels in its playfulness, whether riffing on the "The Room" itself (featuring a strong Seth Rogen as Wiseau's exasperated script supervisor and eventually, the film's de facto director), the plethora of Hollywood cameos that pepper the proceedings to the sly in-jokes that permeate the film. (I especially found it to be a nice touch that Greg and Tommy bond over the work of James Dean, who James Franco portrayed in his award winning television film performance in 2001.)

But Franco is accomplished enough as a filmmaker to ensure that his film is not a misguided effort or exists as just one endless self-congratulatory romp. Quite the contrary, James Franco presents himself as being fully committed as director and actor from end to end. First of all, the re-creations of scenes and sequences from "The Room" are absolutely meticulous to behold, from the choice of actors who resemble the actors from the original film to the set design to even the lighting and cinematography. If the real world Tommy Wiseau ever needed to feel remotely vindicated for his  universally maligned efforts, this element of "The Disaster Artist" alone would achieve that feat.

But beyond mere cinematic aesthetics, what James Franco has also achieved through his performance is a fully lived in character (i.e. not caricature) complete with a tremendous amount of faults wrapped inside of a confoudingly compelling package that is as endearing as it is often maddening in its naivete towards filmmaking certainly, but most importantly, in maintaining inter-personal relationships.

As awful as Tommy becomes during the filming of "The Room," I appreciated greatly how Franco allowed us to see the cracks in Tommy Wiseau's veneer. To be able to show us his fears that perhaps the vision he has dreamed up really is that terrible and if so, what would a failure of this magnitude mean for himself as a human being, for he did indeed place every piece of himself into his efforts as ridiculous as they are. But even so, are the efforts he placed into "The Room"  really that ridiculous after all?

I mean--let's take a look at some of the most successful films ever made and ponder what it may have been like for the filmmakers if the stories and movies they dreamed up did not connect with audiences. What if "The Wizard Of Oz" (1939) utterly failed? What if "Star Wars" (1977) never captured anyone's imagination and died a swift box office death? In so many ways, making a great film is just a roll of the dice and James Franco's"The Disaster Artist" give palpable credence to the dreamers who may not have the talent at all but they still dream anyway and their abilities with dreaming away should be celebrated and not at all mocked or discouraged.

For all of Tommy Wiseau's ineptitude, we are indeed presented with a filmmaker who is feverishly passionate about his perceived art and who is willing to live and die by his creation, whether good or just plain God-awful. And in doing so, I can only think of long established and monetarily successful filmmakers who are clearly so jaded with a career that I believe that many others would just die to have the opportunity (at one time, myself included--or you know...maybe I still do).

I really believe that you can see any movie and just know when the filmmakers are not even trying. If Franco's account is to be fully trusted, then it cannot be said that Tommy Wiseau was not, at the very least, trying to achieve greatness with his ultimately terrible film. In James Franco's full bodied performance, crazy accent and all, he allows us to see the frightened, tender-hearted would be artist that sits at the heart of the failed auteur and by film's end, I think that on some level Franco is arguing that the longevity of "The Room" is something that is not often accomplished and therefore, it is to be applauded.

Beyond filmmaking and the limits of inspiration when confronted with non-existent skill, the heart of the film rests quite lovingly with the friendship between Tommy and Greg, another area where we witness not only Tommy's painfully disastrous insecurities but Greg's equally touching and painful loyalties, which showcase just how far one is able to try and achieve their dreams when just one person believes in them. And for Greg, he often believes in Tommy to his own detriment. Dave Franco gives a fully ingratiating performance as what is essentially the straight man to Franco's full on crazy, thus creating a warm, weird and wonderful balance that is brave enough to delve beneath the superficial and provide some emotional bruises that provides "The Disaster Artist" with a crucial sense of gravity and even pathos.

Certainly, comparisons are bound to be made between this film and Tim Burton's outstanding "Ed Wood" (1994), another film about a disastrously untalented filmmaker and truthfully, we are not quite in that same league. Even so, whatever James Franco is bound to receive at this time and during awards season is indeed more than deserved as he delivered the goods and then some as "The Disaster Artist" is a highly entertaining confection, that in its own sly fashion, challenges us to consider and even re-consider what necessarily devises good and bad art and the idea that if something brings you pleasure, why should any of us ever feel guilty...even, and most importantly, when the art in question is undeniably awful.

Perhaps I should seek out "The Room"!

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