Thursday 21 December 2017

Tommy's war: "The Disaster Artist"

I haven't seen 2003's The Room - you have to pay me to watch bad movies, darling - so I'll have to take the word of my fellow travellers that it lurks among the worst films ever made, or is simply (as one colleague in particular framed it) "a narcissistic load of old toss". The Disaster Artist is the New American Comedy's attempt to spin a form of silk out of this cinematic sow's ear. Director-star James Franco, no stranger to narcissistic loads of old toss, casts himself as Tommy Wiseau, the curiously accented, deathly pallid, indeterminately aged auteur responsible for this abject folly, and fashions around the part an all-star revue that seeks to explain why a sub-bargain bin curio like this has come to hold such sway over sniggering metropolitan hipsters - perhaps, now, the only audience that can afford to knowingly watch bad movies - since it was adopted on the midnight-movie circuit at the turn of the last decade.

What the sharp screenwriting duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now) have pulled from actor Greg Sestero's on-set memoir is another of Franco's sporadic bromances. On one side of the screen, there is the special one (Franco-as-Wiseau), utterly unlike anybody else in his immediate vicinity (and quite possibly on the face of the planet), yet hamstrung by a lack of talent that is similarly beyond the pale; on the other, the normie (Sestero, as played by James' brother Dave) who has a measure of social skills and critical distance, but otherwise remains firmly, stubbornly unexceptional. Neustadter and Weber hone in on the leftfield ways this odd couple sustained each other, and sustained one another's dreams. Early on, during an impromptu acting lesson he gives Sestero in a crowded L.A. diner, Wiseau rather ironically barks "Don't be weird" - he means self-conscious, restrained or inward-looking; "normal", at a pinch - and then "just do it"; what follows holds to the line that there was something cherishable in the fact Wiseau followed his own advice. 

This double-act nudges The Disaster Artist away from becoming the glib exercise in sneering it might have been, and repositions it somewhere closer to the affectionate tribute of Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Sestero is plainly the only person who believes in Wiseau, other than Wiseau himself, which makes for an especially painful-seeming betrayal when the junior partner deigns to take a girlfriend (Alison Brie) and start pursuing more legitimate acting work - goals apparently beyond Wiseau's reach. The Room can hereby be interpreted as a last grab at the big brass ring after months of Tinseltown scrabbling and ritual humiliation, Wiseau's equivalent of the final heist in a crime movie: a shot in the dark, against overwhelming odds, that somehow both didn't pay off (Wiseau remains, in the final reckoning, a footnote or punchline) and did (he made a bad movie that's been seen by more people than many good ones).

Franco is smart enough to realise that while Wiseau was a lousy actor and not much of a director, he makes for a hell of a character: a grungy Florence Foster Jenkins, if you can believe such a thing. He nails this guy's burnt-out mien and futzing syntax, his tenuous grasp on film history and his own place within it; we frequently find ourselves chuckling at this Wiseau's sheer vagueness (introducing Sestero to the other passengers in his van: "That's Todd, friend of Todd, other friend of Todd..."). Yet The Disaster Artist is itself a little sketchy when it comes to describing who its protagonist is and what he actually achieved, instead preferring to play his antics and tantrums for broadly entertaining comedy. Absent is any real sense of where Tommy came from, how he got his money, whether or not his freakier-creepier behaviour could be interpreted as a sign of something more troubling, even - and more immediately significant - why he kept turning up late to the set of his own magnum opus: Franco approaches the part as if Wiseau were part-meme, part-mystery. 

Moreover, unlike current TV favourite Feud: Bette and Joan (a project from which neophytes can, I think, take away some idea of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a deeply felt narrative), The Disaster Artist offers no substantial sense of The Room as a film, save as a curious cash-in-hand gig for all concerned. Franco-as-director is more interested in the collective behind-the-scenes endeavour that salvaged a sort-of functioning movie from Wiseau's wilder gestures. "Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else," proclaims senior cast member Carolyn (Jacki Weaver) during a lunch break, which will come as news to anybody who's worked for Michael Bay or James Cameron. Here, you feel The Disaster Artist giving into the same kind of la-la-land narcissism that might be in The Room, offering yet another round of applause for the dreamers: it extends as far as the end credits, with their shot-by-shot comparison of Wiseau and Franco framings, just in case we'd missed how terribly clever and knowing these scenes were the first time around.

Those reenactments can't fail to satisfy the fanclub and expand the cult - as I write, news breaks that The Room is set to enter into wide theatrical distribution next month - and it's doubtless telling that the grand finale reconfigures The Room's premiere into a raucous rerun of every midnight screening since, with Seth Rogen among the wise-asses shouting back at the screen. Yet I'm not quite sure Franco's film makes the case as to why The Room matters, content as it is to let its creative prime mover float unchallenged across the frame. My feeling remains that life's too short to knowingly watch bad movies, and too damn expensive to pay to watch bad movies, although even as I write this, I am aware I have referred a dozen or more friends and loved ones to Netflix to goggle at the utterly perverse and scarcely fathomable spectacle that is Ray Cooney's Run for Your Wife. As Tommy Wiseau himself ventures, by way of an explanation for one of his more outré performance choices: "Human behaviour."

The Disaster Artist is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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