How does one begin to define success? What does it mean to be successful? If there are any questions that The Disaster Artist brings up, it is those. Directed by and starring James Franco, The Disaster Artist — based on a memoir of the same name by Greg Sestero — recounts the making of what is probably the most iconic cult movie in cinema history, 2003’s The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s writing-directing-starring-producing debut.
When I first watched The Room a few years ago, I didn’t know how to digest it. It was undoubtedly the worst thing I’d ever watched (although 1995’s Showgirls is close second), but something about it was almost mystifying and equally endearing. Perhaps that’s what drew James Franco to the project; the question of who Wiseau is and how this project came to be.
James and his brother Dave Franco star as Wiseau and Sestero, respectively, with supporting work from Seth Rogan, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, and more. And while the entire cast boasts strong performances, it is Franco’s now Golden Globe-winning turn as Wiseau that truly captivates.
If there’s anything that characterises The Room, it is Wiseau himself and not so much the film (though the latter certainly can’t be ignored). His stamp is so clear in every scene — even the few he is absent from — that’s it is incredibly difficult to ignore his influence. Such is the case for The Disaster Artist, both for Franco’s acting and directing. Franco — who is no stranger to tributes — approaches Wiseau with such scrutiny that he is able to reproduce Wiseau’s mannerisms to an almost alarming extent, becoming more Wiseau than Franco in the process. In any interview, Dave Franco revealed that his brother adopted the persona off-screen as well when directing. The process of making The Disaster Artist thus mimics that of making The Room, and for the sheer dedication to his character and his film, Franco’s show-stopping performance deserves all the applause.
In looking at The Disaster Artist, a question inescapably asks itself: what is this film about? Is it about the making of The Room? Is it about success and what makes it? Or is it about the man behind it all? I’d venture to say that it is a bit of everything to varying, often unequal degrees. This conversation of theme is somehow lost on the form. The film jumps from documentary (think: the opening sequence of reactions and commentary) to mockumentary to feature film, and while it is thematically able to reconcile itself (at least in a better manner), it isn’t able to produce the same effect as a film in and of itself because of the confused presentation.
Despite the fact that one can technically watch Franco’s film without watching its source material, the result is a lot more effective with The Room in mind because it is in the parallels that The Disaster Artist thrives. Far from a bad film, The Disaster Artist does well to celebrate the passion and eccentricity of an aspiring filmmaker in favour of delivering the all too universal sentiment of not giving up on one’s dreams.
But beyond that, there is very little ground that is covered in-depth. The film, above all else, feels like a squandered opportunity to really delve into what makes popularity tick, to study the cult movie to end all cult movies. Even if one were to argue that the film’s very existence does that, there comes a point where things are too implicit, and the film is simply lacking in substance.
In his memoir, Sestero attempts to perceive the reaction to The Room and Wiseau. He questions the reasons for classifying a film as successful in a dichotomy as old as time: is it rave reviews that determine success? Or how much a film spreads? Is the latter not at the heart of cinema? Can we, therefore, call The Room, a deluded dreamer’s product, a success? I’ll leave that for you to decide.