Archive for January 3rd, 2019

January 3, 2019

#145) “The Disaster Artist”: book vs. movie

Everyone loves a good train wreck, and train wrecks don’t come much bigger than “The Room”, a 2003 film that has often been cited as the worst movie ever made.

That said, train wrecks aren’t always created equal or, more accurately, aren’t always remembered equally. Fifteen years after its release, “The Room” enjoys a cult following and celebrity status. Like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” it is often given midnight screenings with audience participation; like Ed Wood, director/star/writer Tommy Wiseau has become a cult figure who is laughed both at and with. As Greg Sestero writes, “‘The Room’ became every bit the blockbuster Tommy had envisioned, though not, of course, in the way he envisioned.”

“The Disaster Artist” was published in 2013 and made into a movie in 2017. The film is directed by James Franco, who stars as Wiseau. Franco’s brother Dave plays Sestero, who starred in “The Room” and also served as a line producer. (“When we began, I had no idea what a line producer was. Neither did Tommy.”)

Sestero and Wiseau met four years before production on “The Room” started. During this time they developed a bond. While they were an odd pair – Sestero a clean cut kid from the ‘burbs; Wiseau an eastern European eccentric who wore his heart on his sleeve but also was very secretive about his origins – they both felt like outsiders and shared a dream of making it big in Hollywood. The time they spent together made Sestero qualified to give a well-rounded portrait of Wiseau and his work.

The brothers Franco do a good job capturing the dynamic. James, whose accent of undetermined origin is fairly consistent, is by turns sympathetic and cringe-worthy. He is your older brother who didn’t get enough oxygen at birth. When he tries to woo an agent at a Hollywood restaurant by bellowing Shakespeare, you genuinely don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Dave may be Wozniak to James’ Steve Jobs (there are some parallels in the idiosyncrasies and heavy handed communication style of Wiseau and those of the Apple mogul) but his Greg is not afraid to call out Tommy’s inappropriate behavior. At the same time, when he applauds after Tommy finally nails a line after having mangled it every way possible, he comes across as genuinely happy for Tommy, not just glad to be done with the scene.

In the latter half of the film, Seth Rogen gives an effective straight performance as beleaguered script supervisor Sandy Schklar. Paul Scheer, known as whipping boy Andre on “The League” goes toe-to-toe with Franco as photography director Raphael Smadja. Another “League” veteran, Jason Mantzoukas, is Peter Anway, a go-between for Wiseau and the venue where he is shooting. Those who remember Mantzoukas from “The League” as the psychopath Rafi may find it amusing to see him playing a fairly sane character. June Diane Raphael, known for “Grace and Frankie” and as an occasional guest star on “The League” (no wonder I was drawn to this movie!) plays the actress Robyn Paris, whose role is more about quality than quantity as her few lines provide insight into Tommy and the script. Ari Gaynor brings positivity to Juliette Danielle, the actress who played the thankless role of Lisa, Tommy’s love interest. Zac Efron has an unlikely stint as Dan Janjigian, who plays the violent drug dealer Chris-R. Because we don’t see much of Dan Janjigian out of character in the film, by proxy, the wholesome Efron becomes the dealer and pulls it off.

If the film has one shortcoming, it’s the narrative structure. The book alternates between flashbacks and the present; having multiple storylines helps keep interest. For the first half of the film, we see little besides James and Dave. While the constant shifts in time of the book might not have translated well on screen, breaking up the timeline a few times would have helped the pacing. The film doesn’t make much of a side plot about Greg’s girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie) and their breakup (although the book doesn’t get much into this either); this is a storyline that should either have been developed further or dropped.

The book ends as “The Room” is about to screen for the first time. Sestero knows that we know what happens and opts to conclude by celebrating Tommy’s fulfilment of his dream and ignoring the inevitable ridicule and eventual redemption that would follow: “Although I knew Tommy’s film wasn’t going to be received the way he wanted it to be that night, I hoped he’d be able to recognize how incredible this experience really was.”

The film shows Tommy getting more and more upset as the audience laughs their way through the premiere. Greg has to talk him off the ledge: “Look at how much fun they’re having. They fucking love it, man! How often do you think Hitchcock got a response like this?” The last scene feels rushed as Franco compresses “The Room”‘s journey from bomb to cult classic and Tommy’s transformation from reject to folk hero. With a run time of 104 minutes, there would have been some room to elaborate on the aftermath of the film without belaboring the point.

These critiques aside, both the book and movie are worthwhile and entertaining, celebrating misfits and unlikely dreams. As Adam Scott says in the film’s introduction, “People are still watching a movie and talking about a movie. People aren’t doing that about whatever won the Oscar for Best Picture ten years ago.”

During the closing credits, there is a side-by-side comparison between “The Room” and the cast of “The Disaster Artist” reproducing some of the film’s most infamous scenes. Franco and company are clearly having fun but are also respectful; perhaps they see themselves in the struggles their characters felt trying to survive Hollywood, Tommy Wiseau and “The Room.”

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