Cinematic Releases: The Disaster Artist (2017) - Reviewed

There is no shortage of truly bad movies. Turn on the Syfy channel at any given time and you'll see the latest in the Sharknado saga or a three-headed shark terrifying spring breakers. But there are bad movies, and there are the truly transcendent bad movies. These movies have separated themselves from the pack and become cultural touchstones in their own right. Many of these films, one finds by reading interviews or watching DVD special features (if one chooses to delve that far into these films), are made by directors who truly believed they were creating something special. In quite a few cases many still do; a great example of this is Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso storming out of a screening while the audience howls with laughter in the excellent documentary Best Worst Movie. But Troll 2 and other well-known "so bad they're good" films like Birdemic and Miami Connection, all legitimate failures in their own right, were also genre films, where bad is often outnumbered by good. Tommy Wiseau's 2003 film The Room, widely regarded as "the king of modern midnight movies", was straight drama. Most bad drama films are just boring, but The Room has that certain something extra that has made it stand the test of time.

Greg Sestero played secondary male lead Mark in The Room, the result of a close friendship with Wiseau that began in acting classes in San Francisco in the late 1990's. Sestero shared his experiences making the film and his friendship with Wiseau in the best-selling book The Disaster Artist. Wiseau is the kind of person that, if he were not real, someone would have to invent him, and even then nobody could possibly believe he was legit. He hated talking about himself despite somehow being independently wealthy, and he would let nothing stand in his way. Wiseau is an eccentric man living out his Hollywood dreams. And while the book doesn’t always paint Wiseau in the most flattering light, his friendship with Sestero is genuine, and Sestero obviously loves and respects the man. 

The film adaptation of The Disaster Artist shows us that James Franco does too. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer), Franco directs The Disaster Artist and plays Wiseau. The film has an impressive supporting cast full of close personal friends of James, with brother Dave (Now You See Me) playing Sestero and other small but pivotal roles filled out by the likes of Seth Rogen, Alison Brie and Josh Hutcherson. The younger Franco portrays Sestero as the wide-eyed kid looking to find a break in Hollywood while feeling a sense of loyalty to Wiseau, the man who brought him there. As good as Dave is in the film, it would be impossible to overshadow the sheer presence of his older brother. 

As Tommy Wiseau, James Franco is electric. What looked at times in the trailers looked like a pale SNL-style parody is actually an incredibly deep, multi-faceted performance. James transforms himself into Wiseau completely, down to a near-perfectly recreated lazy eye. But it's not even just the look; James's portrayal of the bizarre, mysterious Wiseau shows us a man that is equal parts arrogant and insecure, deluded, possibly deranged but unflinchingly loyal to his best friend. Wiseau's vision may exceed his reach, but that's what we learn to love about the man; he treats his limitations as a challenge, to the point where we sympathize with Wiseau during his lows. We can attribute some of this to Neustadter and Weber's fantastic adaptation of Sestero and co-writer Tom Bissell's vivid storytelling, but James Franco's performance truly delivers, and makes Wiseau into a powerful, remarkable character you can't stop watching or thinking about long after the credits have rolled. 

James Franco's directing shouldn't be overlooked either. The film has a great lo-fi indie look to it that serves its subject matter well. But the true brilliance is in how James recreates the infamous film-within-the-film. The cast is up to the strange but remarkable task, and James's attention to detail in these scenes is superb. However, with the exception of a few side-by-side scenes during the film's epilogue, it's hard to notice these subtleties unless you've seen the original film. The themes are universal enough that to enjoy the film doesn’t require having seen The Room, but it certainly helps if you have. Which raises the question: Will a wide audience that likely hasn't seen the film in question (as of this writing it is not available on any streaming service, and with the exception of a couple of April Fools' Day airings on Adult Swim, the film has never been shown regularly on TV) appreciate The Disaster Artist enough for it to cross over to the mainstream and be a legitimate success? 

This year's awards season is already shaping up to be both wildly diverse and exceptionally crowded. The Disaster Artist is likely as deserving as any film could be for recognition. While James Franco's performance is a solid lock for a Best Actor nomination (kind of a funny thought considering he's playing a so-called "terrible" actor), the film could ultimately get lost in the shuffle. The Disaster Artist is still a great film with a well-worn but compelling story, showcasing a transcendent performance. Its biggest questions may be whether or not it does enough to distinguish itself and truly stand out in a crowded season, and whether or not it depends too much on its audience having seen The Room. Regardless, The Disaster Artist is an entertaining, fun crowd pleaser deserving of every bit of attention it can get. If you have the chance, and if you're brave or crazy or drunk enough, try to watch The Room. But even if you don't have the fortitude for the so-called "worst movie of all time", The Disaster Artist is not to be missed. 

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-Mike Stec