I have to wonder about the experience of the uninitiated going into The Disaster Artist, mainly because they don’t have the background hilarity of The Room arming them against analyzing what director/star James Franco is about to lay out before them.
The Disaster Artist, based on Greg Sestero’s memoir “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made,” tells the story of Greg’s adventure with Tommy Wiseau, before and during the production of The Room. The Room is famously, and almost universally, considered to be the worst movie ever made. It is, by the way, only a movie that was made at all in a very technical sense. That is the sense in which anyone who wants to pay around $6 million to make a movie and then pay a theater to screen it for a couple of weeks can also have a movie “made.”
The Room has grown in “popularity,” over the last 15 years by word-of-mouth and can now be found at midnight screenings across the country. It has a lot of fans because it’s absolutely hilarious, and you just can’t help but laugh (if you can get past a sort of blank, mystified stare). Your own amusement is uncomplicated when watching (unless you watch The Disaster Artist first), because all you’re watching is a film created by an apparent moron, or group of morons, who make the absolute worst choice at every step through a screenplay that is completely nonsensical.
The funniest thing about it is that it is completely serious while relaying action and dialog that is so distanced from any human experience that you have to assume that the film is made by someone who heard a vague rumor that there are people, but hadn’t ever met one, and wasn’t sure they actually exist. It’s the equivalent of making a movie that attempts to embody unicorn culture and encapsulate the “unicorn condition,” but by pure guesswork, that gets everything wrong.
The Disaster Artist is a very different effort, because it wants to show you Tommy Wiseau and wants to get at least as many laughs.
The film opens with Greg and Tommy meeting at an acting class, and we quickly see Tommy taking a turn at delivering a scene. He goes to extremes that clearly showcase the fact that he isn’t afraid to embarrass himself, and something about that freedom draws Greg to him. They quickly become friends and we slowly enter the quirky, oddball world that is Tommy Wiseau. If not for the fact that we know The Room is going to be the end result of this friendship, we might imagine that we’re about to get something like an inside look at Andy Kaufman’s life, and even the fact that you imagine such an adventure is enough to suck you in.
While we watch an indeterminately, but much, older Tommy take 19-year-old Greg to L.A. to pursue their acting careers, we learn that neither are the shooting stars they hoped, and Tommy has an endless supply of money, but won’t say why. As things progress, and Tommy is crushed unceremoniously under the bootheel of Hollywood, we also learn that he was involved in an accident at some point, won’t tell anyone where he’s from, can’t discern other people’s ages, and has a social aptitude score in the negative numbers. Tommy is repeatedly rejected, apparently for quite some time, mainly because he isn’t simply a bad actor, he doesn’t seem to know what acting is, perhaps because he’s only loosely associated with… well, whatever “not acting” is.
Greg isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer either, and something about Tommy’s lack of filter or inhibition has him mesmerized. Thus, when Tommy decides to forego Hollywood and writes a screenplay himself, Greg somehow likes it and agrees to star in and help make the film.
The problem with The Disaster Artist, despite a rather impressive turn by James Franco in front of the camera, is that this isn’t a story about a guy who is incredibly stupid that takes a closer look at just how stupid he is in order to get some laughs (which is bad enough now that I actually put it into words), but the story of a guy who is clearly mentally ill who, not to put too fine a point on it, we are just blatantly making fun of.
The film certainly has some positives, though they have little room to win out. Despite the oddity of casting brothers who closely resemble each other to play two random people (a move perhaps channeling the decision-making skills behind The Room), the acting itself is decidedly strong throughout. It’s also difficult to deny that this is an interesting and entertaining story to digest. Still, that’s as true if the film is a soberer relaying of events as it is if we’re trying to get you to fall out of your chair. Suppose, for example, the film hoped that you would wonder why not one person, at any point, stopped taking this guy’s money, as opposed to simply hoping that you’d laugh at him.
In a world where efforts like Dance Moms and Real Housewives (or, frankly, certain hours of Today) are legion, and “Laughing at Stupid People,” isn’t just a genre, but more than one network, it’s easy to understand the theory of the appeal. But, there’s a difference between the “stupid” that is a kind of committed ignorance or simply a horrifying attitude and perspective, and the “stupid” that is the inability to process information or interact with reality. Being convinced that you’re clever while acting like a fool is, occasionally, comedic. Being unclear about the extent to which you can bemoan your lot in life after having your brain splattered on the wall, is not.