Don’t Be Brando Today, You Might Hurt Yourself: ‘The Disaster Artist’ doesn’t quite embrace the weirdness of Wiseau

People were outraged at the existence of The Emoji Movie, but nobody complains when James Franco adapts a meme as a feature film. It’s likely because the adoration for Tommy Wiseau’s The Room predates the internet culture of the present day — The Disaster Artist is an engaging throwback to the early years of the 21st century; an interesting conclusion to this year’s unofficial ‘Hollywood Dreams’ trilogy of La La Land, Feud: Bette and Joan and now this account of the making of the consensus ‘best worst movie ever made’.

Now I’m quick to add that I don’t think The Room is the ‘best’ anything; while it’s undoubtedly a fun watch once, the cult around it is based on a lot of bandwaggon-hopping. Half the people who claim they’re “big fans of The Room” probably haven’t watched it from start to finish.

The Disaster Artist is a far more accessible work, a fairly run-of-the-mill Apatow bromance comedy with one deranged, possibly career-best performance at the centre. James Franco has always been a good actor, but in 2017 nobody can ignore his talent: on The Deuce he plays divergently charismatic twins, and his depiction of The Room’s director, writer, producer and star is truly splendid. Tommy is a man like nobody else. No date of birth, place of birth or source of (bottomless) finances is known, yet he’s one of the most distinct visionaries in modern cinema.

Franco, who considers himself a bit of a renegade artist as well, does seem to have a good understanding of Wiseau’s complicated mindset, and he builds an absolutely compelling figure. Unfortunately, everything else in the film is a a lot more ordinary. Younger brother Dave is cast as The Room co-creator Greg Sestero, and while he’s appropriately eager he simply can’t carry a film as a lead. Dave’s real-life wife Alison Brie makes a delightful appearance as Sestero’s girlfriend, and some of my other favourite people pop up here and there — Bob Odenkirk as a Stanislavsky imposter, Bryan Cranston as himself etc.

The film is most enjoyable when the focus expands from Wiseau’s own creative ambitions to his admiration of Hollywood greats: he and Sistero visit the James Dean crash site after watching Streetcar and the best line in the film is Wiseau’s directorial advice to his actor: “Don’t be Brando today, you might hurt yourself.” The film never fully buys into the craziness of the character or his ideas: Wiseau himself, or another filmmaker more imaginative than Franco, could’ve made a stranger version of The Disaster Artist more similar to The Room itself.

There’s an inherent hypocrisy to the uber-sincere, “believe in yourself and anything is possible” message of this film: we’re supposed to root for Wiseau when his terrible film premieres (after we’ve witnessed him being quite seriously abusive towards an actress — a scene that doesn’t sit well in November 2017) and to shed a tear when the audience laughs at his creation and he gets upset. But this Frankenstein story doesn’t work when the film itself is overwhelmingly reliant on mockery of the man, with an objectivity and distance between his persona and the perspective of the film. Like The Room, audiences will cheer and laugh at Franco’s film, only to ignore the serious flaws that hold it back from greatness.