TIFF FILM REVIEW: THE DISASTER ARTIST Effectively Spoofs Cult Hit “The Room” – And Itself
Give the people what they want. What to make of a film an artist sets out to make as purportedly serious but instead moves audiences to tears with laughter? Such was the trajectory of the now cult-hit The Room, the making of which is chronicled by James Franco and his gang in The Disaster Artist. Though it is at times difficult to disentangle the comedic brilliance of The Room and its creator, Tommy Wiseau, from the actual achievements of Franco’s new movie, there is no question that the two together raise fundamental questions about what art is and what markers of quality are. And, to the perhaps surprise of skeptical, snotty-nosed critics, they effectively upend conventional answers to those basic questions.
The Disaster Artist follows Tommy (James Franco) and his best pal Greg (Dave Franco), after they meet in acting class and move to Los Angeles dreaming big. Like so many before them, prospects do not turn up quickly at their doors but resourceful Tommy takes up matters into his own hands and decides to write a script himself. The eventual end result, The Room, made $1,800 in theaters on opening weekend and is widely considered one of the worst flops in moviemaking history. And yet, in the years since its release in 2003, it has scaled a mountain of devoted followers that iconic movies like Clue or The Rocky Horror Picture Show today enjoy. Devoted fans can recite lines like inside jokes that outside observers may view as outright bizarre.
James Franco’s film thus has a head start in terms of comedic effect—particularly if you watch with devotees of the movie whose making it narrates. There is an undoubtedly amusing quality about Tommy’s eccentric manners, his grotesque accent, and his persistent disconnect with reality. Tommy is, at bottom, an unabashed narcissist who thinks his ideas are paramount and that no one else gets him, stylizing himself after great directors like Hitchcock.
Let’s face it, who better to play a self-involved, self-professed genius than the not humble Mr. Franco, who thinks he owns a particular brand of humor all on his own? But one cannot deny that he has the acting chops to effectively portray the central figure in the film, chewing scenery all around his supporting cast which includes his brother as well as Seth Rogen and Alison Brie as other individuals involved with the production of The Room.
The Disaster Artist is successful beyond the simple layup of the underlying material it has to work with. Franco’s script adds amusing one-liners and retorts Tommy-style to the off-camera interactions between the characters, it is not simply an exercising of repeating and reimagining the best scenes from The Room. And in presenting the evolution of the project from a disjointed mind into the laps of hungry audiences, it raises and eventually answers important questions about how we conceive the art of the movies.
Try as we may, it is ultimately not critics who solely determine what is tasteful and what has redeeming quality. Once a product is put out there, the intentions of the artist at times recede to the sideline. The object attains a life of its own, and grows and returns with each successive interaction between audience and movie, a feedback loop that can be regenerative even if it’s also self-fulfilling. You or I may raise our eyebrows at younger generations thinking themselves subversive for applauding outlandish scenes or nonsensical dialogues. But if it inspires people to memorize and repeat its lines, to thirst for repeat viewings, and to elevate it beyond any plane it first existed in, does it not then have, by definition, intrinsic artistic merit? Surely the answer must be yes, otherwise all art would be adjudged by robots and objective variables, defiling it of the reasons for its existence in the first place.
But let’s not give all the credit quite yet to The Disaster Artist, a movie about the making of a movie in which a movie is made, given the rich source material it had to begin with. Nor should we punish it excessively for being in that position, because the film effectively recreates the production while finding a singular voice of its own in the land of farce and satire. The script and film cleverly pick up on the nature of the absurdity they are spoofing and build on it, and therein lies the merit of this film.
What is art? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more, for I cannot provide a clear answer. I can borrow, as I did, from one expression (in that case, from a song) and use it for my own vision, my own expression (in this case, a film review). Each of us will land in different places on the merits of these different endeavors. The Disaster Artist is an example of quality filmmaking that can be taken with complete levity but also more seriously, as just exactly such a distillation of a complex medium—one that persistently refuses oversimplification.