Greg Sestero’s book “The Disaster Artist” is part exploration of the years before “The Room”, where Greg and Tommy Wisaeu met and befriended each other, part expose on the making of “The Room”, and part character study of Wisaeu himself. It non-linearly criss-crosses between the years before “The Room” and the production of the film itself, and frequently lapses into ruminations on Wisaeu himself.
James Franco’s film “The Disaster Artist” dispenses with that non-linear style, much of the information in the book (small wonder, the excellent audiobook read by Greg himself clocks in at nearly twelve hours), and the more active judgements of Wisaeu himself, flattening out the real-life story into a more linear, easily-understood, even Hollywood-style narrative under two hours. Some of this is disappointing (like the painful celebrity testimonials opening the film), as some of the more surreal elements of reality are brushed aside to deliver a more conventional story – Greg’s “characterisation” really hurts for this, as his more complex motivations melt away as Dave Franco’s one-note performance of him just sees him sort of passively tag along with Tommy for most of the runtime, never really addresses how and why he and Tommy eventually reunited, and casts aside his more interesting thoughts on Tommy.
Tommy himself is better served, with James Franco delivering a strong performance of him that rarely resorts to the easy joke, flat-out mockery of Wisaeu. I can’t help wondering what a less measured, more frantic performance by someone like Nicholas Cage might have brought to the film, but Franco doesn’t feel like a misfire. Behind the camera, the worst I can say is Franco (pulling double-duty as director) missed some of the potential of the incredible real-life events and characters behind “The Room”, but perhaps that was inevitable, matching up to reality and all. I’m just surprised how standard a biopic managed to be hashed out over Tommy Wisaeu of all people. The positive reception to “The Disaster Artist”, a conventional film in so many ways, must be such a surreal thing for Tommy himself, and is certainly strange when compared to “The Room” and its own reception.
I think the film would have worked better for me if I hadn’t read “The Disaster Artist” first and was less aware of some of the incredible absurdities behind Wisaeu and “The Room”. Hell, perhaps the film might even function well if you hadn’t seen “The Room” at all beforehand.
The book “The Disaster Artist” ends somewhat ambiguously, at the premiere of “The Room”, leaving the reception and the years of public response to the reader (perhaps the existence of the book itself, and the fact the reader is reading it at all says enough). This film adaptation extends further, compressing years of changing public response to the film and Tommy’s shifted positioning toward it (and reclamation of it) into just the premiere night. It works as cinematic shorthand and compressing the narrative, and gives the film closure, ultimately a keen enough move – another montage, the way the film offhandedly dealt with Tommy’s writing of the film (clearly drawing from his personal life in ways more interesting than the comedic montage covered) may not have been a good idea anyway.
This film is certainly leagues less memorable than “The Room”, but still did a good job paying tribute to it. It’s too unimaginative at points, and misses some opportunities to delve into the more complicated and absurd aspects of “The Room” and the people behind it, but is a breezy, enjoyable experience that usually takes the high road and doesn’t resort to easy, mocking humour. What’s more interesting is how the film plays in the context of Franco’s own career, perhaps filled with some of the same sort of vanity project overtones Wisaeu’s is (Franco’s amount of directorial credits is bizarre), but of course, in the same way that Wisaeu’s blessing of this film neutered it from some of the more interesting directions it could have taken, Franco steering the ship inherently had to do that as well. Three water bottles, and a fake beard.