Friday, December 8, 2017

In Theaters: THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by James Franco. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Cast: Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Buress, June Diane Raphael, Andrew Santino, Nathan Fielder, Charlyne Yi, Bob Odenkirk, Jerrod Carmichael, Zoey Deutch, Randall Park, Casey Wilson. (R, 104 mins)

Since making his mark nearly 20 years ago on the ignored-and-now-iconic cult TV series FREAKS AND GEEKS, James Franco has had one of the strangest careers of any mainstream Hollywood actor. He's one of the industry's most tireless workaholics, with some extremely unpredictable choices that often border on some kind of obscure performance art. He appears in box-office blockbusters (Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN trilogy, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES), hit comedies (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, THIS IS THE END), played the bad guy in a Jason Statham movie (HOMEFRONT), stars in acclaimed indies (SPRING BREAKERS), barely-released European art films (Wim Wenders' EVERY THING WILL BE FINE, Werner Herzog's QUEEN OF THE DESERT), Lifetime movies (the remake of MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER?), has an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (127 HOURS), did a three-year recurring stint on GENERAL HOSPITAL, frequently turns up in uncredited cameos (THE HOLIDAY, the remake of THE WICKER MAN, NIGHTS IN RODANTHE, THE GREEN HORNET, ALIEN: COVENANT), has published several collections of poetry and short stories, created a multimedia presentation based on the late '70s/early '80s sitcom THREE'S COMPANY, starred in the TV series 11.22.63 and THE DEUCE, earned a degree in Creative Writing in the mid '00s while maintaining his film and TV work schedule, and more recently, taught film courses at UCLA. For the last several years, he's been in an average of ten movies a year, and has somehow found the time to direct over 20 feature films, most getting very limited exposure and some still unreleased, ranging from the experimental CRUISING riff INTERIOR LEATHER BAR to biopics (he directed and starred as poet Hart Crane in THE BROKEN TOWER) to gothic horror (THE INSTITUTE), and most notably, an ongoing series of classic American literature adaptations (William Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY and AS I LAY DYING, Cormac McCarthy's CHILD OF GOD, and John Steinbeck's IN DUBIOUS BATTLE). Franco's oeuvre as a director has been commonly described as self-indulgent at best and unwatchable at worst, but he remains undeterred: he's got five directing efforts scheduled for release in 2018.

With that in mind, it's easy to see why Franco the filmmaker might feel some sense of kinship with Tommy Wiseau, the auteur behind 2003's THE ROOM, the midnight cult movie sensation that's become one of the most beloved bad movies of all time. Based on the 2013 memoir by ROOM co-star Greg Sestero, THE DISASTER ARTIST chronicles the friendship between Wiseau (Franco) and Sestero (James' younger brother Dave Franco) that began in a San Francisco acting class in 1998. 19-year-old Greg lives with his mom (Megan Mullally) and dreams of being an actor, but he's too shy and lacking in confidence in front of an audience. Enter Tommy, a long-haired, enigmatic mystery man of unknown origin and indeterminate age who gives the class an overwrought, climbing-the-walls, writhing-on-the-floor, pelvic-thrusting version of the "Stella!" bit from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Greg approaches Tommy about practicing some scenes together, and though he's a terrible actor, Tommy's fearlessness inspires Greg and almost immediately, the pair move to Los Angeles to pursue their acting dreams. They live in Tommy's L.A. apartment--a self-described "pied-a-terre" that he rarely uses. Tommy also drives a Mercedes and seems to be independently wealthy, but refuses to discuss his past, his money, or his age. Greg soon lands an agent and gets a few small gigs and a girlfriend (Alison Brie, Dave Franco's offscreen wife), while Tommy, with his strange appearance and even stranger accent, goes nowhere and grows increasingly jealous of Greg's relative "success." With both of their careers seemingly stalled before they even begin, Tommy considers giving up and going back to San Francisco but when Greg half-jokingly suggests they make their own movie, Tommy takes him seriously.

Tommy spends nearly three years writing THE ROOM, a drama with obviously semi-autobiographical plot elements, including a woman who broke his heart by cheating on him with his best friend. Tommy casts himself in the lead role of Johnny and Greg as his best friend Mark. Tommy also intends to direct the film, despite having no filmmaking experience. This is evident when he chooses to go the significantly more expensive route of buying the camera and sound equipment instead of renting, and when asked if he's shooting in 35mm or digital, he impulsively blurts out "both," which requires two different crews of technicians, but Tommy doesn't care because "I have a vision!" He pays to have sets constructed that look exactly like the real locations right outside the studio, which thoroughly baffles experienced script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen), who's worked on real movies and TV shows and immediately recognizes that Tommy has no idea what he's doing. But Tommy perseveres, making the film he wants to make while alienating a good chunk of the cast and crew, including Greg, with a turning point being his berating female lead Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor) over a couple of small pimples on her chest that he insists will ruin their sex scene. By the time filming is finished--it's no surprise that Tommy goes over schedule--the budget balloons to $6 million and he doesn't even bat an eye at the cost.

What makes THE DISASTER ARTIST work as well as it does is the respectful approach James Franco takes--both as a director and an actor--to Wiseau. It would've been easy to make a snarky and mocking takedown, but Franco seems to genuinely admire the eccentric auteur. And he's perfect in the role, nailing his garbled, vaguely Eastern European accent (Wiseau repeatedly claims to be from New Orleans) and his mannerisms, right down to every facial expression. THE ROOM was a film whose early cult consisted of celebrities telling their friends about it--both James and Dave Franco, Rogen, and others like Kristen Bell (who acquired a print and would screen it for friends at her house), Paul Rudd, Patton Oswalt, Kevin Smith, Adam Scott, Danny McBride, David Cross, J.J. Abrams, and VERONICA MARS creator Rob Thomas, who began slipping ROOM references into episodes of the show. Like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, THE ROOM took on a life of its own on the midnight movie circuit, with audiences throwing plastic spoons (a reference to a strange photo of a framed spoon in Johnny's house) and tossing footballs around, which characters in the film always seem to be doing. And there's so much quotable dialogue, from "Oh, hi Mark," to "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!"

Tommy Wiseau, James Franco, Greg Sestero, and Dave Franco
at an early 2017 screening of THE DISASTER ARTIST

Making his most accessible, commercial effort yet as a director (you really don't need to know THE ROOM to enjoy THE DISASTER ARTIST, but if you haven't seen it, you should), James Franco clearly adores Wiseau but isn't afraid to show his paranoid and often unlikable side, nor does he shy away from pointing out the genuinely inept elements of THE ROOM--like Wiseau's bizarre choice to have Johnny laugh at a story Mark tells about a friend being nearly beaten to death, or one character's announcement that she has breast cancer never leading anywhere or being referenced again ("It's a twist!" Franco-as-Tommy explains, obviously not knowing what a plot twist is), and James Franco matches Wiseau's utter lack of self-consciousness with the auteur's tendency to lay himself bare when a ranting Tommy demands his thrusting ass be the center of attention in a sex scene. There's a fair amount of dramatic license taken for sure, but THE DISASTER ARTIST is a funny, heartfelt, and sincere love letter not just to a movie that's brought joy to a lot of people (of course, Wiseau now insists much of the film was meant to be funny), but to all of the misguided souls whose dreams are too far beyond their capabilities--few soundtrack choices this year are more perfect than Faith No More's "Epic" playing as Tommy and Greg walk to the set in slo-mo on the first say of shooting ("You want it all but you can't have it!") . Be sure to stick around for the credits, where several ROOM scenes are played side-by-side with dead-on, perfectly-matched recreations by the in-character cast of THE DISASTER ARTIST. I wouldn't be surprised if Franco actually shot a scene-for-scene remake of THE ROOM with his cast to be included as an inevitable Blu-ray bonus feature.

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