The Disaster Artist and the film whose making it chronicles, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, are extraordinary in the same way – unintentionally. The surface of The Room is much more remarkable than the surface of The Disaster Artist, but only because The Room breaks every formal rule of cinema to which we’ve become accustomed. The Disaster Artist is rote. It’s what lies beneath the surface of these films that deserves our attention, their psychological import, the unfettered id running rampant on screen. The Room warrants its own review (and more). I’ll focus here on James Franco’s film.
On its surface, The Disaster Artist is a testament to friendship as a buffer against the fell angels of the creative process and the callous commercial interests that control the film industry. It’s a feel-good movie about movie-making in the tradition of Sullivan’s Travels, Singin’ in the Rain, and last year’s La La Land. On this level, The Disaster Artist is capably entertaining, more so if you are familiar with the bad-good movie whose creation it recounts.
James Franco’s impersonation of Tommy Wiseau is uncanny. I hope he didn’t method-act this part, lest his personality be even temporarily stuck in Wiseau-mode. Also, you may wonder if Franco’s character is on the autism spectrum. Interestingly, The Disaster Artist subtly suggests that Wiseau’s peculiar manner of interacting with the world is the result of a car accident. This is but one Wiseau-related mystery the film gently invokes without necessarily solving.
A layer deeper though—and not one I think the filmmakers intended—The Disaster Artist is much more compelling. This is the first great film of the Trump era. Consider – here is a story about a wealthy man of questionable background with rumored nefarious foreign ties. He uses his money and the authority it buys him to tyrannize a society of people. He disposes at will people on his team who disrespect him. He sexually harasses both men and women as a kind of power play. His behavior is erratic. And while all of this feels abusive, you also feel that were you able to ask him about his behavior, he’d feign ignorance – he doesn’t intend harm; he’s just doing what one does. All of this is undergirded by a very American kind of ambition. The man fashions himself as an American hero. He is indeed a type of American ideal, albeit a tragic one by any reasonable estimation. Motivated by an obvious emotional trauma in his past, he reforms the world to his liking and expects to be cheered by all for it.
The Disaster Artist is a funny movie, but, as Steve Allen said, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” meaning that we are able to joke about things from the safe distance of time that would have been (or were) traumatic in the moment. Being on the set of The Room with Tommy Wiseau looks to have been a nightmare, but we’re not there now, and we know the joy his film has brought to us in spite of his intentions, so we can laugh at this abusive behavior which we now see as antics.
So in The Disaster Artist we, inevitably, watch The Room’s first audience sit uncomfortably watching the film. The audience includes the cast and crew of the film who are reliving the horror of being on that set. And then, inevitably, their discomfort morphs into laughter. This is tremendously cathartic. It is a kind of foretaste of the release we hope to feel when the trauma of our present moment is far behind us and we can laugh about the absurdity of it all.
The Eisenhower years were inundated with the retired-warrior, nation-building Western heros. The youth rebellion films of New Hollywood made up the cinema of the Vietnam era. Brash triumphalism typified the Reagan presidency. The superhero genre, with is misunderstood strong men standing bravely between humanity and inhuman terror, dominated the Bush era. Perhaps the cinema of the absurd will be our balm in this new era, prophesying a day when we’ll be able to laugh at all this madness like the cast and crew and audience of The Room.