Last Wednesday, I went with a friend to see the free (free!) first non-festival screening of The Disaster Artist (2017) in Taiwan. I’ve never seen a Taiwanese audience so involved with a film, so willing to openly react, especially to the scene where Tommy Wiseau (a perfect James Franco) fails to complete a scene in sixty-seven takes. And taken as a farcical tale, such a reaction is well-deserved. The problem is that these are real-life events; people actually listened to this guy and actually made that terrible film, The Room (2003). That’s not as innocuous as it sounds.
Nick Allen over at the Roger Ebert website faults the film for not delving into the psyche of eccentric and delusional filmmaker Tommy Wiseau. Judging from the promotional materials, I expected nothing of the kind. I thought it would be the spectacle of this guy who shouldn’t succeed succeeding regardless, and that’s exactly what I got. The talking point seems to be that this is a “dream come true” film, but that only serves to heighten the contrast between ought (not) and is. It’s a total and absolute farce, from when Tommy scales the theater stage walls screaming “Stella” to James’s drawn-out “noooot” in the comparison shots.
But there is indeed a dark underside left unexplored, to the benefit of the film’s tone, since doing so would’ve turned it into a docudrama. Tommy’s treatment of Juliette Danielle’s Lisa (Ari Graynor) and Carolyn Minott’s Claudette (Jacki Weaver) are the glaring examples, but there are warning signs galore: Wiseau’s lack of trust and repeated accusations of betrayal, his personal toilet right on the set, and most symptomatic his belief that, since he’s the one forking over the money, everyone should obey him without question. Helping Wiseau make a film and (possibly) turning him into a star is therefore not just trying to realize someone’s dream. It’s boosting the influence of a frankly unsavory character. Siddhant Adlakha’s piece on the cult status of The Room shows how this moral blight has stayed with the cult film and evolved year after year.
The actual making of The Room saw an extremely high turnover rate for crew and even cast, but The Disaster Artist wades into morally murky waters by keeping everyone on board, despite the fact that nobody but Wiseau is comfortable with the situation, not even his bestie Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). DP Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) almost leaves, but everyone else basically says “fuck it” and shows up to work every day, an attitude best demonstrated by script supervisor/de facto director Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen), so well portrayed probably because Rogen himself took the same attitude when dealing with James, who directed the film in character as the director of the film the making of which the film is about. Why don’t they leave? Money.
That’s why this film reminds me of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Both are real-life stories about morally dubious men who turn money into power (albeit at different scales) and use that same money to turn what should by all rights be a crash-and-burn into a feather-light landing. The main difference is that, whereas the straightforward depiction of events in Wolf horrifies us (at least those of us who aren’t Wall Street douchebags) while making us examine the complicity in our secret desires of being in Jordan Belfort’s shoes, the decision to film Disaster as a comedy relegates the characters’ moral objections into fodder for the funnies. Danielle (playing Lisa) gets body shamed? Let’s show how inept Wiseau is at sex scenes (and possibly sex in general)! Wiseau imposes his toilet’s existence on everyone who has to cross the set? Have DP Smadja use it in secret revolt! Wiseau screams betrayal at every turn? Put vaguely empathetic and humanizing words into the mouth of Robyn Paris (June Diane Raphael), who plays Michelle—that’ll make Wiseau’s behavior hilarious! What’s saddest about this situation is that it’s the nagging possibility this could all very well happen—and has happened—that makes this farce work. As I mentioned before, farce is the art of the implausibly possible.
The film has been compared to The Master (2012), but it’s not about the charisma; it’s the money. And all of us in this capitalist society can use a little more of that.
Editor’s note: A version of this piece has been published at Critics at Large. This piece was planned before the allegations against James Franco came to light, but in retrospect it’s unsurprising that James would be so drawn to this story of a successful douche. Not saying he is one.