Early on, James Franco’s ostensible-lark The Disaster Artist seems oddly generous, even generative, with its themes, as though willing to interrogate questions ranging from auteurism, to film-set camaraderie (or lack thereof), to intentionality, to interpersonal relationships and the cost of friendship. In other words, director-actor James Franco’s film adaptation of Greg Sestero’s tell-all book about the making of the cult anti-classic The Room has ideas both for and about Tommy Wiseau, director and star of The Room and all-around human enigma, here played by Franco as well. Which means that it escapes, at least for a duration, the obvious narrow corridor of an in-joke about a film that is, itself, a joke. The early-goings flare with at least mild possibility. They glint with shards of not only genuine cinematic joie de vivre but dueling absurdist tragedies. One tragedy, Sestero’s, is a modern day James Dean story of a rebel with a cause, and the other is of a man who at least believes himself to have a cause.
The latter is, of course, Wiseau, the writer-director-producer-star of the greatest cult sensation of the 21st century, the singular The Room, a grotesque disfiguration of semi-autobiographical cinema and a film that Wiseau seems to believe is autobiographical for him. Exploring Wiseau’s early relationship with Sestero, who he meets at an acting class, their subsequent move to LA from San Francisco, and the then-subsequent filming of The Room, recreated in (too)loving detail, The Disaster Artist is a decent tribute film to The Room, but a superior excavation of Wiseau himself. Franco imagines Wiseau as a figure of tenuous humanity, a walking act of self-fashioning. Ultimately, this Wiseau is a prophetic attempt to, totally in spite of himself, become the tragic hero he believes himself to be. He’s also a man wearing what he believes to be a costume of human tragedy but whose goth-chic exterior and sheer unknowability eventually mutates into a black hole of sorts, an all-consuming darkness that threatens to suck up everything and everyone around him.
Embodying the spirit of Wiseau, here something of a belligerent and all-consuming monster, Franco is certainly magnetically charged with a sheer fascination for his subject. But what surprises is that he exudes more than mere imitation. He unnervingly moors himself to Wiseau’s physicality not as an act of performative mimicry but as a portal into a man who is possibly pure performance. As imaged here, Wiseau seems to consider every external facet of his being as a calculated image, desperately trying to actualize his personal idiom of the lone, misunderstood rebel made manifest in a ghoulish facsimile of humanity. This is a man whose animalistic convulsions on set amount to a perversion, or inversion, of method acting. Wiseau, as an actor, doesn’t so much constantly inhabit his character as force his character to become himself, with Wiseau operating under the deluded belief that his own life is a metaphor for that character. Wiseau doesn’t so much play a role as foist himself upon it because he seems to already believe that they are him. In other words, he believes that he is almost a role himself, an icon figure fashioned out of movie characters and clichés he has firmly latched onto in order to coalesce a semblance of self.
That the film actually centers somewhat around Sestero’s perspective, with Sestero played here by James’ brother Dave, also sidesteps the obvious trap of explaining Wiseau away for us, turning him into a mere checklist, a set of facts and events that happened to him and which we are now witness to. Instead, he becomes a walking enigma straight out of a Victorian-era monster novel, a perversion of human exteriority and interiority. The Disaster Artist asks us to reach Wiseau inductively, through unstressed actions, mannerisms, vocal ticks, and, ultimately, his personal style that he seems to enforce with an almost divine personal fervor, as though any momentary slip of his external façade would cause his entire soul to crumble. Franco’s performance is nothing short of wonderful, not merely because he nails Wiseau’s external mannerisms but because he hints a possibility for why this illusory person externalizes himself as he does. There’s the strange, loping simulacrum of a New Orleans drawl. There’s the constantly protective laugh wielded as an affectation, a weapon to comment on his own sentences, and those of others, before anyone else has a chance. There’s the Keatone-esque stone face that seems determined to withhold vulnerability or self-reflection for fear of being labeled weak. They all envision an impression of a human being, but a galvanic one, a figure of heedless ambition and frustrated dreams who, perhaps because he feels like an act, is all the more convincing to impressionable actors like Sestero.
The problem isn’t so much the film around Franco as the cult around Tommy who Franco may have wished to appease. While the film’s malevolent undertones and homoerotic tints are exciting, The Disaster Artist ultimately wishes to salvage The Room and Wiseau in the most banal way it knows how: by recreating scenes from the film, trivial waxworks with the arbitrariness of local fair historical reenactments. These copious recreations exist seemingly to legitimize the film, as though we devoted followers of Wiseau won’t believe Franco if he doesn’t mimic the film he claims to love, thereby proving where his heart lies through carbon-copies that exist only as personal protection for Franco. Or, more accurately, as collateral to prove he truly loves the thing, as banal regurgitations conditioned on the assumption that copying or reflecting The Room is somehow a more legitimate display of compassion than refracting The Room, mobilizing it for a purpose beyond mere recreation.
But even if one were to eliminate these sequences, one still has to contend with the narrative structure of the film, one which turns toward the end – creepily, as though Wiseau himself had gained control – into a redemption arc, a narrative about a man who follows his dreams and eventually achieves a bastardized version of the success he dreamt of. The Hero’s Journey stagnation flattens out the film, tames it, scrubs down all it roughness by siphoning all its strangeness into a manicured, pre-programmed arc. Here, Franco’s supreme generosity for Wiseau diminishes itself through sheer excess. Early on, he gifts Wiseau a conflicted reading as an emotionally-stunted, flagrantly abusive manipulator. By the end, he’s trivialized Wiseau’s life by filtering him through yet another misjudged arc, a more superficially positive reading of Wiseau as a person but one that warms over the uniquely concussed, concussive person he is, or seems to be. If The Disaster Artist is supposed to be a picture about absolution for its subject, the finale ultimately suggests that Tommy Wiseau’s life-story is more-or-less interchangeable with those of a million other filmic subjects. What a mundane fate for a most unique man.