“The Disaster Artist” is a meta-commentary on meta-commentaries. The film opens up with a group of famous comedic actors sharing their appreciation and fond memories of watching “The Room,” Tommy Wiseau’s legendary so-bad-its-amazing cult flick. It’s a jostling sequence, simultaneously removing and entrenching us in the subsequent weirdness that is about to take place on screen. It’s like director James Franco is pulling us aside to not only say “The Room” isn’t a real movie, but that “The Disaster Artist” is just as fake and plastic as Tommy Wiseau’s gas station sunglasses.
Dave Franco plays Greg Sestero, a struggling, insecure actor living in San Francisco. Greg becomes entranced by the manic and wildly performances of his acting class colleague Tommy Wiseau and asks to be his scene partner. The fact that Tommy looks like a wax figurine of a wax figurine doesn’t bother Greg, nor does the fact that nobody knows where Tommy is from or just why he has so much money. Greg genuinely only cares about their friendship, a blossoming bromance built upon a collective love of acting and baring one’s soul on the open stage. That shared passion pushes them to pack it up and head south to Los Angeles, where stardom (hopefully) awaits.
Greg and Tommy are hit with constant failures, Tommy especially who becomes something of a laughingstock among casting agents. Through his disenfranchisement, Tommy is inspired to write and create his own movie, “The Room.” Tommy spares no expense and even creates a few unnecessary ones of his own when he buys all of his equipment and hires a full cast and crew, all of whom eventually learn to hate him. As Greg’s personal life and acting career flourishes off “The Room” set, with things become increasingly serious with his girlfriend Amber, the whole “The Room” turns from passion project to obligation, straining his relationship with the increasingly erratic Tommy.
It’s a bizarre, unsettling film, not that anything on screen is disgusting or shocking, but because it demands to be appreciated as a normal movie when it is anything of the such. It asks us for laugh at and mourn for Tommy Wiseau, a man who has done mostly nothing wrong except look weird, talk weird, and not provide ample air conditioning on his set. Tommy is the on-screen recreation of that co-worker or classmate who has done nothing to wrong you in your life, but something about their mannerisms or just their general vibe causes you to hate them. We feel a displaced, secondhand embarrassment for Greg throughout the entire movie, almost as if we’re standing next to him trying to defend Tommy from haters, or simultaneously questioning Greg from afar why he still bothers to hang out with this guy at all. That embarrassment becomes reflected on us, feeling awkward and ashamed at times for watching the movie, like Franco challenging is criticizing our watching of his film, wondering why we’re even here laughing at him to begin with.
This displacement makes sense, considering the film is entirely composed of famous faces, lending credibility to the quality of the production but also supplanting it in a strange surreal state. Funnymen Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Nathan Fielder and Hannibal Burress all star as members of cast or crew in the film, with James Franco’s early mentor Judd Apatow starring as a Hollywood producer whom gets an unwelcome Shakespeare monologue from Tommy during dinner. Alison Brie plays Greg’s girlfriend, and is now dating Dave Franco in real life, establishing that this film is not real, but is likely the thing that helped created a real romance. And James and Dave are brothers in real life too, making it nearly impossible to see either of them as Tommy or Greg, let along both of them as Tommy and Greg. There is a public knowledge of the inner workings of these private Hollywood relationships, an informed awareness that makes it impossible to take “The Disaster Artist” seriously. With this type of cast, the only thing it can exist as is commentary or parody. It’s like a mockumentary without any jokes, or if one of the “Scary Movie” comedies actually turned out to be scary. The Disaster Artist” is unsettling because it seems wholly confident of what it is, even though we have no such idea.
This feels likely to be Director James Franco’s point. With more degrees than a protractor, Franco would totally be intrigued by the nature of “The Room” and Tommy Wiseau, about a piece of art or media that veers so far off course that it becomes appreciated for something else entirely, and about a bizarre artist who the only thing people know about him is that he made this movie. Franco takes that displacement of artistic identity in “The Room” and throws it onto “The Disaster Artist” instead, where even its most glaring flaws seem totally intentionally. Greg is a noble character and a “good guy” but the audience is never any solid reason why he continues to hang out with Tommy. The film spends most of its time laughing at Tommy’s failures, but asks us to cheer for him in his triumphs.
Most impressively, Franco questions the nature of celebrity and the media landscape itself, and if Tommy and Greg can truly call themselves celebrities for the nature of their work. And Franco does this in one scene, when a famous, beloved actor (spoiler alert below) steps into the same deli that Greg and Amber are eating at. In 2017, this actor is known for a much different piece of media than he is back in 2002-2003, so its humorous to hear Greg say “Hey, its Bryan Cranston, I love him from ‘Malcolm in the Middle'” But then Amber actually introduces Greg to Bryan, with the conversation resulting in Greg getting a small part in an episode. That small “Malcolm” role sparks heightens the already blossoming ill will between Tommy, Greg and Amber. But it’s interesting Bryan is clearly a famous enough actor nowadays that people associate him for for “Breaking Bad” than “Malcolm.” It raises more questions than it answers: Why Cranston vs. another actor? Why even have that scene at all when it didn’t happen in the book? But the nature of the scene further displaces and entrenches us, increasingly susceptible to the spell of this real actor is playing a fake version of himself in a half-real/half-fake movie based off a real bad movie.
An interesting question that a colleague posited about “The Disaster Artist” is if it needed to be made. Usually, I’m not a big fan of this question, as it can easily be used to negate any film adaptation, or any film in general (“Sure, ‘The Godfather’ was a great book, but did it have to be made into a movie?”). But for “The Disaster Artist,” the question does have more merit. Greg Sestero wrote his book both as a way to explain more about “The Room’s” bizarre nature came to be. The book also became massively popular but because it was well-executed, revealing that Greg might have stronger talents as a writer than as an actor. But I don’t know if Greg ever had intentions to make a movie from his memoir. And his memoir, while certainly funny, isn’t funny in the sense that “The Disaster Artist” makes it out to be. But this latest movie proves that Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau will only become further displaced. Their original artistic intentional is negligible, their original goal now insignificant in the wake of the massive appreciation, outweighing the art, blurring the line between media and medium, and banishing the concept and the entirety of the real.