The James Franco persona, carefully cultivated over the last 15 years, projects a kind of renaissance everyman. A guy who’s really good at reading Faulkner AND can outsmoke the best of them. He consistently chooses projects that test his very presence as an actor, as a cultural icon, as meme, as person. Playing James Dean, starring on General Hospital, hosting the Oscars, even carrying 127 Hours largely by himself. For a personality so obsessed with the self, The Disaster Artist is probably the most personal work that James Franco has ever given us.
The individual elements should add up to a smug-fest targeted to millennials like me: James Franco, The Room, A24. The Disaster Artist is a detailing of how The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s monsterpiece often cited as the worst movie ever made, came into being. It is a portrait of this seemingly ageless, nationless, endlessly wealthy man’s quest to become his own James Dean. It’s a love letter to filmmaking, performance, and communities coming together to create something out of nothing. The climax, The Room’s premiere, will remind you of Hannah and her Sisters, of Sullivan’s Travels. Hell, it even recalls City Lights in the way the reality of The Room is revealed to the cast and crew. Tommy is a perfect Little Tramp. It would make a good double bill with the recent Jim Carrey documentary Andy & Me.
Though larger than life, Franco as Tommy is unlike his performance as Alien in Spring Breakers, which was born from pop cultural signifiers, blended together in service of whatever polemical argument Harmony Korine was making. Wiseau, ridiculous as he may be, is real. And Franco searches for the person beneath the persona. It isn’t clear if he finds that person exactly, there’s no breakdown or dropping the bit scene. But it’s in the tension that Franco finds the truth that he looks for, by completely giving himself over to the awkward mannerisms, the accent, the lie. It is a physical and mental feat on the level of, say, Denis Lavant, an act of control between personas that doesn’t really hit a false note.
It is interesting to watch Franco as director reposition the Apatow bromance into Cassavettes-lite drama, all handheld cameras and mumbled lines. But as with so many of his projects, Franco finds homoerotic subtext. This time it is between Tommy and Greg Sestero, The Room’s star and co-author of the book The Disaster Artist. But by casting his own brother Dave Franco in the role of Greg, James adds a meta-discomfort to their relationship as it becomes more toxic and co-dependant. It is little touches like this that make the performances so exciting, all the scenes bursting with comic energy. The revolving door of cameos from the US comedy scene doesn’t hurt: Nathan Fielder, June Diane Raphael, Jason Manzoukas… if you’re into Comedy Bang Bang or Burning Love, or just about any US sitcom from the past five years, you’ll be happy with who shows here.
The film concludes with what can only be taken as a reference to Franco’s idol, Gus Van Sant, with clips of The Room playing side by side with The Disaster Artist’s reenactments. They begin to blend together in one’s mind, they make you question your taste, your judgment. It makes you into The Disaster Artist. A superb, energising film.