So here it is: Real Hollywood Moovee. Can James Franco convince as Tommy? Has Greg Sestero originated an improbable masterpiece? Will The Room's legend be confirmed or destroyed by close examination? And why, once and for all, does Tommy Wiseau have a secret pocket in his underpants?
Country: US | Runtime: 103m | Director: James Franco
Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie
This happens: San Francisco, 1998. Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), 19-year-old one-time model and aspiring thespian, struggles to project the confidence his acting coach demands. Fellow pupil Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) has no such problem, which leads Sestero to suggest a collaboration. A peculiar friendship blossoms and the two move to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming stars. It isn't long before Wiseau decides to write, direct and produce his own movie, and The Room is born.
"Keep your shortcut in your pocket."
Greg Sestero's book, The Disaster Artist, alternates between two narratives: the author's initial meeting, and subsequent friendship, with gregarious peculiarity Tommy Wiseau; and the farcical production of the movie they would go on to make together. It's a devastatingly funny and seemingly candid account detailing one man's struggle to relate to the universe. While unavoidably derisive of Wiseau's acting abilities, Sestero is at pains to highlight other qualities. In doing so, Wiseau is humanised and takes on the rounded depth that his mysterious secrecy and bizarre public image contrive to conceal. The book is sympathetic without being condescending, and critical without being spiteful. Striking the same tone in the film adaptation was always going to be crucial.
"Do it like Shakespeare, but sexy."
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's script understands that you can't translate characters from page to screen without fettling them; it's too easy for an amusingly offbeat misfit to become an implausible, unlikeable caricature. As a result, many of the book's more sinister anecdotes are omitted, including most of the quasi-sexual advances Sestero suggests Wiseau may have made on him, and the cringe-inducing accounts of the latter's antics auditioning attractive young actresses. He's had his edges rounded off a little, some eccentricities have been gentrified. Perhaps surprisingly, more significant changes are made to Sestero's 'character'. In his book, Sestero paints himself as a knowing outsider observing Planet Tommy through a telescope whilst stifling laughter. But in the film he believes in the man and his movie, at least for a time, and becomes a collaborator (perhaps 'enabler' is a better word) with enthusiasm and gratitude. Sestero has claimed he did all he could to avoid acting in The Room, knowing the catastrophe that awaited. The changes make him look a bit of a numpty. A vacuous, talentless, naive pretty-boy going nowhere without Wiseau's dynamic guidance. In reality Sestero had minor success after moving to LA, landing a starring role in horror sequel Retro Puppet Master. It's a terrible performance in one of the worst movies from a franchise even I can't be doing with, but it was enough to give him a name, a showreel and significant career seniority over Wiseau, who couldn't land an agent at the time. By bringing the characters closer together in terms of their degree of success/failure, and by extraditing some of Wiseau's more malevolent alleged behaviour, the film normalises and humanises him at least as much as the book, even if at times it does so at the expense of Sestero.
"I'm not Frankenstein!"
With the script doing its share of the work to make Wiseau pallatable, the pressure was on James Franco to convey the inherent vulnerability the former displays in The Room. That Franco manages it so convincingly, and while getting big laughs at Wiseau's expense, is the most impressive thing about The Disaster Artist. It's a great performance; sensitive and nuanced, and one Franco needed to give not just for the film but for his career. The cheeky stoner-cum-renaissance man persona grates on many, and his propensity to pop up in ill-conceived, self indulgent comedies surrounded by his buddies risks marking him out as a cross between Shia Labeouf and Adam Sandler. Nobody wants that. But he nails the peculiar idiosyncrasies of Wiseau's speech, and does an excellent job mimicking his physicality, in spite of there being little natural resemblance between the two men. (Wiseau once told me he thought Johnny Depp should have played him because they look so alike. Joking aside, Depp looks a hell of a lot more like him than Franco does.) With screen Sestero so deliberately different to page Sestero (not to mention real Sestero), it's harder to judge Dave Franco's performance in the only other major role. His job is essentially to hold a vacant smile between reacting to Wiseau. It might have been nice to see more, but I wouldn't want to risk the pleasing balance and chemistry that exists between the two characters. Essentially it's a good performance for the movie, but a poor realisation of Greg Sestero. Given how well calibrated everything is, I assume that was a deliberate decision.
"Hey Mark, hii Mark, hei Mark… oh, hai Greg!”
Elsewhere, thankless minor roles are filled by celebrity fans (notably Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael of How Did This Get Made?), while gravy-training megastars (Melanie Griffith and Sharon Stone are particularly good) drop by for showstopping cameos in the fun parts. But the limelight is reserved for Franco the elder, at least when the material itself isn't hogging it, because if his performance is The Disaster Artist's big gun, The Room itself is its not-so-secret weapon.
Watching The Room you inevitably become conditioned; desensitised to its strangeness. Seeing normal humans recreate (with astonishing accuracy) snippets out of context is a different experience. It's a little like seeing it for the first time, or at least seeing it with friends for whom it's a new experience. And by freeing The Room's funniest moments from the movie's unique rhythms, and positioning them within a structure designed to capitalise on their comedic potential, they can become even funnier. (Within the peculiar context of The Room, Claudette's announcement that she's dying of cancer is so casual and abrupt that it's funny. Imagine the same scene performed the same way, only without the context, without the normalisation. It's possibly even funnier.) A coda in which various sequences are played out side by side, Wiseau's Johnny doing battle with Franco's to be the more odd, demonstrates how much effort went into re-staging The Room's most infamous moments. It was worth it.
So, to return to the beginning, can James Franco convince as Tommy? Emphatically yes. Has Greg Sestero originated an improbable masterpiece? Not quite, but it's bloody good. Will The Room's legend be confirmed or destroyed? I'm going with confirmed, it proves mysterious enough to withstand close inspection. Why does Tommy Wiseau have a secret pocket in his underpants? I'm no closer to an answer on that one.
Trailer: The Disaster Artist
Trailer: New Line, Good Universe, A24
Photos: Justina Mintz, courtesy of A24 and New Line Cinema. ©2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC