As a present for fans of infamous cult classic The Room and fans of James Franco and whoever occupies both groups, James Franco presents James Franco playing The Room’s eccentric creator Tommy Wiseau in a movie about James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau. Any interest in watching James Franco play Tommy Wiseau? This movie about James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau is for you! James Franco certainly thinks that James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau is about the greatest damn thing to happen to cinema since Tommy Wiseau played Tommy Wiseau in The Room, so that’s one considerable endorsement right there.
As far as movies involving James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau go, The Disaster Artist is relatively decent. Franco is funny, committed, and appropriately odd. The real-life events are head-scratchingly comical and the shot-for-shot recreations of scenes from The Room are impressively restrained and detailed.
But, uh, what’s the point of all this? Franco befriended Wiseau during production and certainly has his unique accent down pat, but he admits early on that Tommy is a mystery (where is he from and why he is so clandestinely rich?) and then proceeds to make an entire movie that never attempts to understand or comprehend the depths of the mystery.
Leaving Tommy as an enigma isn’t necessarily a bad decision, but Franco seems oblivious to the possibility that the source of Tommy’s enigmatic self is the only thing that can elevate this beyond worthless scene reenactments and Wikipedia-esque info summaries. Anyone who wants to witness Wiseau’s awkward theatrics need only watch The Room, since there’s plenty on display there, so why watch The Disaster Artist unless it’s only to witness James Franco channel those awkward theatrics himself?
It’s not like what the movie lacks is a backstory-providing flashback, which would have been terrible, but rather that Franco plays this whole charade so straight and makes a very conventional movie about the making of a very unconventional movie that nonetheless gained notoriety specifically for being so bad at recognizing and recalibrating movie conventions. Telling a basic concept-to-screening story in such simple fashion robs The Disaster Artist of any potential to illuminate the subject or enlighten the audience.
This approach also leaves little space to explore anything of substance. Franco takes his time establishing Tommy’s budding friendship with aspiring actor Greg (Dave Franco), which leads to the making of The Room and becomes a general catalyst for many of Tommy’s emotionally charged decisions. The friendship is key to Tommy’s onscreen arc, but it’s relatively one-note after a while. Credit should go to Dave Franco for keeping certain moments even remotely meaningful with his heartfelt portrayal of an increasingly exasperated Greg, who only wants to help Tommy out.
Eventually, Franco gets to the juicy making-of stuff, but he has so much ground to cover that he locks himself into a stiff, static formula where he recreates an unbelievably bad scene and then whips the camera over to catch the baffled looks of the crew. Repeating this approach several times weakens the fun factor because it’s the same joke with the same punchline over and over again. While it’s still a mildly humorous joke, the gags become tiresome.
There’s an inevitable falling out once the production wraps and then a reluctant reunion just in time for the premiere that will soon catapult The Room into bad movie history. Franco never appears to have any worthwhile commentary on any part of the unfolding story, from the forming of the friendship to the making of the movie to the birthing of a cult classic.
Even in terms of simply examining an epically bad movie’s fandom, Franco manages only to stage a predictable reenactment of the movie’s L.A. premiere and then fills the screen with a bunch of text about how poorly the movie did and how popular it became. It’s a far cry from the incredibly funny, sad, and strange documentary Best Worst Movie, which explored the legacy of fellow worst-movie-ever Troll 2 with wit and imagination.
Franco doesn’t seem too interested in reflecting on why The Room is popular or why Tommy is strange or how he was able to self-finance a movie with a professional crew and have it end up so curiously catastrophic. His aim is simply to recreate scenes, imitate Tommy, and have a few laughs in the process. The result is funny at times and pitiful at others, but mainly, it just feels like a missed opportunity.
The pursuit of art, however misguided or fruitless, is a fascinating topic for filmmakers to explore, but it’s clearly not a subject that Franco has anything insightful to say about. No, The Disaster Artist is all about one thing, the circus that is James Franco directing James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau directing Tommy Wiseau. It’s a narcissist’s mobius strip, twisting through one ear and out the other.