Tommy's Planet: "The Disaster Artist"
The Disaster Artist begins with a montage of familiar talking heads offering laudatory remarks for, presumably, the film’s subject, enigmatic writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, who also directs) and his 2003 cult sensation The Room. Then again, what Kristen Bell, Adam Scott, Danny McBride, J.J. Abrams et al. are saying avoids direct name-dropping, which may be the film’s introductory joke of honoring trash in a Celebrity Void's vapid rituals, and presses on any film critic searching for marketable quotes suited for the contemporary sensation of “branding,” as they call it. The “worst film of all time” is reconsidered through the finesse and default assurances of competent insiders, its true life genesis crammed into a humorous modality redeeming Wiseau’s scatterbrain creation into something consonant and coherent. Suddenly with recognizable faces lauding garbage, any piece of shit on a plate can not only be art, but also delicious—all while remaining nevertheless a piece of shit. Bon appétit.
It makes perfect sense that Franco should be the one to bring Wiseau, if not to life (Wiseau is still very much alive, like his film, which has monthly midnight shows at Minneapolis’ Uptown Theater), to full “representation.” Franco’s gone from respectable and bankable star and actor (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, the Oscar-nominated 127 Hours) to a manic Renaissance Man: writing novels, making music, co-hosting the Oscars, guest starring on General Hospital, directing a film version of As I Lay Dying, showing up in an obscure adaptation of Don Quixote, and probably giving the most unexpected scene-stealing performance in a wide-released avant-garde near-masterpiece, Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers. Franco’s restlessness suggests an artist’s self-retreat, of denying that there’s a “there” there by leaping into constant work, climaxing with directing and playing Wiseau, an indiscernible mystery man of unknown heritage (his accent suggests Eastern Europe, but he insists he’s from New Orleans), age (he dyes his hair black and says he’s the same age as the teenagers with whom he takes acting classes), and sustenance (ostensibly another struggling performer in San Francisco, it’s revealed he has a furnished apartment in Los Angeles, and a bank account described as a “black hole,” the millions of dollars he writes in checks cashing, much to the surprise of his film crew).
While we may know more about Franco than Wiseau, he too is something of a disaster artist, wavering unsteadily between admired craft and pop-culture punch lines, his infamy playfully self-parodied as he allows himself to be the only Apatow-bred superstar beyond salvation in friend (and Disaster Artist coproducer) Evan Goldberg’s This is the End. Using Wiseau as a means for his own bare-assed exhibitionism, and even casting his brother Dave Franco as Wiseau’s Room co-star and apprentice Greg Sestero, The Disaster Artist may be an unexpectedly smuggled autobiography, an incestuous exercise where, ironically using the template of a “bad” artist and his art, Franco can finally achieve critical and commercial success as a director. While the true-life Tommy and Greg may have been inspired by watching Nicholas Ray’s seminal Rebel Without a Cause, as we look at James and Dave Franco watch James Dean, we remember how James Franco’s immersive portrayal of Dean in Mark Rydell’s 2001 television movie catapulted him from Freaks and Geeks to actorly significance. After the film, Tommy and Greg drive three hours to the site of James Dean’s death, a step towards becoming just like him (excepting, of course, the dying), reaching to fulfill the iconography they worship.
The action begins in 1997 San Francisco, where Greg studies acting with questionable talent. He’s electrified by the mysterious classmate who follows him, Tommy, performing (or something to that measure) Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire—altering Tennessee Williams' text and lingering with moaning “Stella!” repeatedly, throwing furniture and climbing on the wall before collapsing in a heap center stage, his velvety red shirt glowing like an exposed, if blatantly artificial, flesh wound. The theater teacher, played by Melanie Griffith, is nonplussed: unlike Greg’s mediocrity, what Tommy has done is so bad that it evades criticism, so baffling it cancels out assessment (I don’t want to strain anything here with topically sociopolitical parallels, but if we’re to make The Disaster Artist a by-product of the Era of President Trump, there you go). The casting of Griffith may itself be a kind of jokey cinephile allusion, the movie’s acting class launchpad in a story about manufacturing trash and confused identities perhaps nodding to Brian De Palma’s Body Double. And like Gregg Henry netting Craig Wasson in his own elaborate true life/snuff trash “plot” in De Palma’s acting class scene (two, if not “bad” then certainly undistinguished real-life actors playing two struggling bad actors), Tommy may be fishing for his own apprentice, catching Greg to fulfill his fiction of The Room: one of Tommy’s mysteries, in The Disaster Artist and real life, pertains to if he’s been in on the joke the whole time.
Greg introduces himself to Tommy, who replies, “Yeah I see you in there,” a line reading where the subject feels less the acting class (I see you in there) but Greg’s identity within Dave Franco’s body: I see you in there. While Brando said that to act is to survive, using the lies of limitless personae to cope with life's adversities, Wiseau’s method is shameless revelation, a contradiction given his inscrutably performative veneer. Tommy prods Greg to “expose himself,” reading with unimpeded expression and volume a play in a crowded restaurant, the two of them completing a scene to the nervous applause of onlookers. They become bosom buddies, Greg moving into Tommy’s Los Angeles flat, signing with talent agencies and pursuing acting gigs. Their existence is bound to the work, with real-life expectations and relationships being intrusions ill-suited for the bizarre plot Tommy has mapped in their shared space, and by this I mean the interruptive spark of most film narratives, sex. Greg’s mother (Megan Mullally) sensibly intuits Tommy, picking up Greg in a Mercedes Benz, is something of a predator targeting her teenage son, but releases him. Later, when Greg starts dating another actor, Amber (Alison Brie--Franco the Younger's real-life wife, and so further reinforcing the film's incestuous bubble), it threatens to become a wedge. For a brief moment, Tommy’s jealousy suggests the homoerotic elephant in the room. But he continues to develop as an asexual—or perhaps uber-sexual and onanistic—creature in his incestuous muddle of life and art, eventually in The Room’s production not simulating vaginal sex, but navel sex with his leading actress (Ary Graynor), nodding again to Wiseau/Franco’s creative navel-gazing.
Failing to land work, Tommy lights up at Greg’s throwaway jest that they should just make their own movie. It turns out that he can not only afford to rent expensive production equipment, but buy it, procuring a full indie film crew, studio space, and catering. Even so, he pinches his pennies (e.g. air conditioning), one of the few extraneous expenses being a private toilet behind a black curtain: the artist’s allotted space of inceptive “creation,” one could say, making his piece of shit. Now we’re privy to the careless magic of Tommy’s “craft” and committment to his illusions, however ineptly realized, even an in-studio recreation of an alley just outside. “This is real Hollywood movie!” he tells his script supervisor (Seth Rogen), who wants to know why they're putting time and effort into this kind of art direction. Much like Tommy himself (or The Disaster Artist), reality has to be recreated to be really real.
The Disaster Artist goes through the archetypal motions of completing a play or movie such as we’ve seen in sundry films, with on-set squabbles stemming from the director’s vanity in conflict with the needs of his employees, particularly Greg, who is offered a promising opportunity with a lumberjack role with Bryan Cranston in Malcolm in the Middle, coincidentally to be shot the day after Tommy needs Greg to shave the beard that netted him the role. But everything has to be done how and when Tommy wants it, without question, Tommy's own awful line readings demanding a Kubrickian number of takes. The Bridges are burned as Tommy and Greg undergo their mutual dark nights of the soul, falling apart and then, as the form demands, coming together at the illuminating film premiere.
This apex moment of his work being shown is Tommy’s grandest humiliation, the Prophet of Exposure exposed—and paradoxically his redemption. Here The Disaster Artist steers pointedly away from its most obvious film-about-films predecessor, Tim Burton’s wonderful Ed Wood (1994), which similarly refashions the world’s worst director and worst film (Plan 9 from Outer Space) into a redemptive conclusion with Wood (Johnny Depp) jogging stage-bound between the aisles to applause, as Howard Shore's music triumphantly complements his hard-won march to victory. Wood dedicates his opus to his late surrogate father Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), and leaves the theater at the first reel starts rolling, eloping with his girlfriend (Patricia Arquette). Burton’s film, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, allows the artist to escape with the fullness of his vision incorporated into a redemptive biographical narrative removed from Wood’s otherwise tragic life and reputation.
In contrast, The Disaster Artist keeps Tommy—and us—in the theater to suffer the slings and arrows of agonized viewers who just want this piece of shit to be over. And then…something happens. As with Shakespeare's misfit players presenting Athens the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, The Room migrates from the pathologically self-involved navel-gazing hands of its inscrutable auteur, whose being is as mysterious as his multimillion-dollar means, to the anonymous audience. The failure portended by a producer played by Judd Apatow, interestingly in the news currently for demanding actors not work with certain directors with allegedly unsavory backgrounds and habits, is corrected by virtue of what the audience reaps independly of the author. The artist’s personal “confession,” which it’s implied The Room is for Tommy Wiseau (his backstory is limited to a car accident from years ago), becomes an ebullient new creation through the audience's collective experience, a sensation coasting on new wings of reader-response. That’s not to say Wiseau (or Franco) doesn’t matter, as what they’ve sewn into their films is of their private and idiosyncratic habits and experiences, which becoming infectious to us (as with the most indelible performances, I found my speech patterns copying Franco’s Wiseau for a couple hours after viewing The Disaster Artist). Artists and audiences, creators and consumers, shitters and shit-eaters, are at last one and the same. The humorously dread world, made by a careless and mysterious God full of mind-boggling admonitions, is saved by unlikely interpreters who experience the whole mess as a beautiful joke. Tommy's (and The Disaster Artist's) marketing material includes pens with a globe head that says "Tommy's Planet." The product is that of a creator who's surrendered, and we finish the writing.