Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 12, 2017 5:45 am 
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The fascination of terribleness

The Disaster Artist is about the 2003 creation and first showing of the movie The Room, which is nowadays watched by drunken, costumed fans at monthly participatory showings in many venues the world over, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Room is deemed by its fans "the worst movie ever made." It must be nice for them to think so. They enjoy laughing at its sillier lines; at its crude acting, its senseless, disconnected scenes. (This isn't my taste.) The present film is an elaborate, funny-if-you-like-such-things, haunting and sad "making of" concerning The Room. It features almost letter-perfect reproductions of some of its scenes (matched up on double frames in a series of proud concluding vignettes), stars James Franco and his younger brother Dave, and was directed by James. The latter plays (who else?) Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious character who created and paid for The Room out of inexplicable deep pockets (it cost $6 million), and Dave plays Wiseau's friend and sidekick Greg Sestero. This is based on Sestero's 2013 eponymous book, adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote the screenplays for500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular now, The Fault in Our Stars and the recent Paper Towns.

This movie takes us from San Francisco, where Wiseau, a terrible but arresting over-actor, and Sestero, a hopelessly timid and inept one, met in an acting class and bonded, a couple of failures at the same dream, and went to L.A., eventually making and starring in their own movie at Wiseau's expense when they couldn't get acting work (though the conventionally handsome Sestero did get an agent). Then it chronicles in arguably excessive detail the making of The Room, and the discovery at the premiere that audiences loved to laugh at it. But this story fails to show how Wiseau gradually came to milk this taste and enjoy his odd celebrity.

For fans of the cult film The Room, this may be a joyous and hilarious celebration. Otherwise, it's an examination of cluelessness, and a strange, rather sad friendship. This is perhaps the best thing the absurdly productive James Franco has ever done on his own - not counting his sometimes excellent performances in other people's movies, as in 127 Hours, Spring Breakers, or as twins in the current David Simon HBO series "The Deuce." Playing Tommy Wiseau may ideally suit his "talents" when on his own, since Wiseau, like him, is in real life a 24/7 performance art piece rather than a real person.

The movie, which congratulates itself too much from the start with a series of celebrity plugs for the cult bad film, touches with its strange awkwardness, but also finally has no real depth. An actor with real edge to his craziness like Nicolas Cage might have penetrated Tommy Wiseau's mystery as a person in a more interesting way. James, who according to Dave in interviews stayed in character and in voice with Wiseau's strange Eastern European accent throughout the making of The Disaster Artist, produces turned-up mimicry, but no depth, no moments when we glimpse beyond the facade.

At the San Francisco acting class, Greg bombs in a feeble stab at a scene from Waiting for Godot, then Tommy astonishes everybody with his explosive, absurdly exaggerated impression of Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, yelling "Stella, Stalla!," throwing a chair, and climbing a ladder. Greg is impressed at Tommy's boldness and courage, the qualities he utterly lacks. The two have coffee and bond, next driving 300 miles to visit the site of James Dean's death, later impulsively (with Sestero's mom watching uneasily) driving down to L.A. to live as roommates in an apartment Wiseau never uses.

Suddenly they're bosom buddies - but the bonding is of useless aspiration, not shared truth. The naive young Sestero may have little to share. Wiseau, who has a strange singsong way of talking and that strange accent, simply won't reveal anything, claiming to be American and from New Orleans, never explaining where his seemingly inexhaustible supply of money comes from or how old he is. He is angry, misogynistic, a liar - but why? He's funny - sort of; but only in the funnyness of the strange and perpetually off-key.

A fault of the casting is that the real-life Sestero was only 19 and Wiseau was at least in his forties, whereas the Franco brothers are both in their thirties, though Dave looks young . Another flaw is that the "making of" section is full of famous actors, like Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron and many more, which is distracting, and makes this replication of an event seem not serious, but just a celebrity game.

It's hinted that Wiseau might be in love with Sestero, and he clearly feels hurt and betrayed when Greg finds a girlfriend who's a barmaid and moves in with her. But feeling betrayed seems to be Wiseau's default mode. Once they start making The Room - which we see some key scenes of, but never come to understand - even its basic plot isn't telegraphed clearly, James Franco and the writers getting lost in the details - Wiseau is often complaining that he's ignored and mocked, and he behaves imperiously, using his wealth to act lordly. He buys rather than rents the equipment used, making the film at the rental firm's quarters. He has fits of anger, is perpetually late, is a consistently horrible actor- and does all the things that made The Room a cult film for its ritualistic fans.

Many grotesque details of this story make it interesting to follow from scene to scene, and this is a peculiar and unique movie, no doubt about that, in a year when there haven't been many successful outright comedies. Strange things happen in Hollywood, and in some ways the set may recall to you (if you're seen it) James Franco's briefer depiction of another kind of filmmaking in Interior. Leather Bar. Again aspiring actors come to audition, eager to be in a movie they later may want to erase from their resumes. And though that side of James Franco is almost invisible to the general public, he himself is a prolific maker of bad vanity picures, in his case earnest and boring filmings of American literary classics.

For those who like to laugh at badness, or are simply fans of The Room, The Disaster Artist may be a delight. But it's main interest is as a display of how money rules (for a while) in Hollywood, and for the occasionally touching picture of the failed friendship of these two guys who shared a dream that was quite beyond them. It's also fascinating to contemplate how a crude, bad movie or the making of one can momentarily seem more "real" than polished cinematic art. The best thing is that James Franco's movie at moments seems like a crude failure too, thus bringing us into the belly of the beast. This inevitably gives rise to thoughts of Tim Burton's 1994 Ed Wood, but that's more of a movie about more of a filmmaker.

The Disaster Artist, 104 mins., debuted 1 Mar. 2017 (as a "work in progress") at SxSW, in Austin, showing subsequently at 13 other festivals including Toronto. The UK and US limited theatrical release was 1 Dec. 2017. Metacritic rating 76%.

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