The Coen Brothers. Paul Thomas Anderson. Quentin Tarantino. When you think of great American directors who defined the first decade of the new millennium, these are a few of the usual suspects. When we reflect upon the current decade, it would be unwise to neglect the rise of an unusual directorial talent: James Franco. No need to re-read that statement. It’s not a typo — the keys on my keyboard didn’t randomly select those letters in that order. James Franco, yes, the same “Spiderman, hatin’, Pineapple Express smokin’, I love college and studyin’” James Franco — just made one of the best movies of the year with The Disaster Artist. It’ll probably be the most underrated too.
Fresh off his return to the dramatic arena on the newly acclaimed HBO series “The Deuce,” Academy Award nominee James Franco (“127 Hours”) may earn a second with his eerily irresistible portrayal of the aloof and mysterious cult filmmaker Tommy Wiseau. Based on a book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, the film depicts the true, but unlikely bromance between a sheepish aspiring actor, Sestero (decently played by James’ brother, Dave Franco, “The Little Hours”) and the blunt yet deflective and ambitious filmmaker, Tommy Wiseau.
In 2003, Wiseau made his directorial, written, and screen debut with the independent release of his film, “The Room.” The film was never a critical or financial hit, but it gained a rabid fanbase over the years because of the film’s confusingly poor acting and filmmaking (audiences routinely throw spoons at the screen). The Disaster Artist explores the “it’s so bad, it’s good” idiosyncrasies of “The Room,” reinforcing its place as one of the greatest cult phenomena in modern film history. At the center of this story’s curious intrigue is its enigmatic auteur, Tommy Wiseau, a man who denies (in Trump-ish fashion) his obvious foreign accent and old age.
Other than a few moments where his own accent breaks through, Franco orchestrates a near dead-on embodiment of Wiseau, comfortably invoking Wiseau’s boisterous, unpredictable laugh, stiff facial mannerisms (with makeup help), and groggily voice. It’s arguable that Franco’s co-star and younger sibling Dave is miscast as Sestero since an actor like Armie Hammer more closely resembles him. Yet Dave Franco captures the innocent essence of Greg Sestero which brings warmth and heart to the film’s core drama — Wiseau and Sestero’s friendship. This aspect was deftly written by the touted young adult/rom-com screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “The Spectacular Now” and “Paper Towns”).
Unlike Wiseau’s convoluting choices to stick random supporting actors in “The Room,” Franco and team are wise to keep its secondary players purposely minor (such as Greg’s girlfriend, Amber, and script supervisor, Sandy Schklair, effectively played by Alison Brie, “How to Be Single” and Seth Rogen, “Neighbors”). These performances and the film’s startling cameos don’t detract, but enhance the film’s most crucial relational dynamic for greater dramatic effect. And Franco’s cinematic style, while ordinarily straightforward, aids well in capturing the growth of this tight bonding.
So, this holiday season, cheer yourself up with a film about jealousy, insecurity, and heartbreak. For anyone who’s dared to dream, The Disaster Artist may provide inspiration; reminding you to do what makes you happy, even when everyone else thinks it sucks. Ironically, Franco created the film Wiseau hoped “The Room” would be, a well-made, classic Hollywood love story. Franco’s film ingeniously celebrates popcorn and arthouse movies, and amazingly rewards its audience with a re-imaging of sorts of “Ed Wood.” It’s a movie no one thought was needed until it arrived.