It was only a matter of time before someone adapted The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero’s account of working with Tommy Wiseau on The Room, the most iconic cult film of the twenty-first century. What’s unusual about James Franco’s adaptation, however is that it largely refrains from Sestero’s more intriguing speculations into Wiseau’s mysterious past, and his acquisition of the massive fortune that allowed him to single-handedly finance The Room. Nor does it focus all that much on how Wiseau came up with the idea and script of the film, or even the logistics of how it all came together. Instead, The Disaster Artist is a sustained riff on the film itself, full of nods at its most iconic moments, and suffused with the frisson of seeing top-tier Hollywood actors occupying a story that for many years was the exclusive province of a cult demographic. Yet in that gesture lies part of the flaccidity of The Disaster Artist, which by legitimating Wiseau’s story as a topic for Hollywood comedy also goes some way towards anaesthetising what made it so fresh and surprising in the first place. While it may be driven by the pleasure of seeing Wiseau in contexts other than that of the film (or moments from the film dissociated from the film itself), any footage of Wiseau will do that for you, with Franco’s impersonations – and they are impersonations, rather than a sustained performance – often just reiterating Wiseau’s inherent inimitability.
More generally, irony is a bit of a tedious register for a film, especially when it’s drawn out as much as it is here. No doubt, Franco is able to riff – if somewhat unoriginally – on Wiseau’s presence and performance in The Room, but he never really makes him convincing as a character, let alone as a director and cinephile. Given that one of the most striking features of The Room was how unironically it identified with and revelled in Hollywood convention, there’s only so far Franco can go in ironising the more aspirational and romantic aspects of Wiseau’s sensibility, with the result that The Disaster Artist often feels more slavishly devoted to Hollywood expectations that the tone-deaf aesthetic choices it’s supposedly parodying. For that reason, the film tends to work best when it approaches a YouTube tribute to The Room – that is, when it’s content to merely play out as a series of impersonations, or riffs – a mode that the combination of James and Dave Franco (who plays Sestero) accentuates, with their shared scenes often resembling a goofy home video. From the motif of Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” to a scene in which Wiseau and Sestero sing along to Rick Astley, the register here is often very close to online viral content, with Franco’s performance almost playing as an injunction to further impersonation more than anything else. Indeed, in Franco’s hands, Wiseau almost feels like an ageing musician more than a director, whose unironic flamboyance – like that of Corona and Astley – is ripe for remediation in a digital milieu fascinated with the ways in which even the most apparently disposable of musical detritus might be subject to new kinds of inventive recombination.
The most emphatic of these recombinations in the film is, of course, that of Franco and Wiseau themselves, with Franco effectively presenting himself as the medium through which Wiseau’s most embarrassing and ridiculous moments can be repurposed for an audience who may never have even seen The Room to begin with. Key to that is the way in which Franco emphasises James Dean as point of connection between Wiseau and Sestero – Greg looks like him, Tommy also survived a car accident – with the critical consolidation of their friendship taking place by way of a shared and spontaneous pilgrimage to the site of his fatal car crash at what is now James Dean Memorial Junction near Cholame, California. It’s no coincidence, either, that the entire screenwriting process for The Room is effectively condensed to a video night of Rebel Without a Cause, which ends up providing Wiseau with some of his most iconic and beloved lines. While the James Dean angle also forms a part of Sestero’s account, it’s especially prominent here, as if Franco were positioning himself – and his own performance of James Dean in the HBO telemovie of the same name – as the natural convergence and culmination of Sestero and Wiseau’s collaboration on the film, as well as the best conduit for transmitting their shared Hollywood fantasies into the present.
This is probably the part of the film when Franco comes closest to taking Wiseau seriously – or at least compassionately – with the proliferation of James Dean references taking us back to an older era of Hollywood in which the histrionic, low-budget extremities of The Room were more a part of the cinematic landscape, and might even have passed for naturalism in certain contexts. Unfortunately, that’s somewhat undone by the rest of the cast, since from the outset The Disaster Artist is packed to the brim with celebrities, some of them playing themselves, and some of them playing fictional characters. For all the supposed narcissism of Wiseau, there’s an even more distasteful narcissim at play here in the spectacle of Franco performing Wiseau for the benefit of his Hollywood peers, to the point where it’s almost like watching him hobnob, network and revel in his circle of acquaintances more than anything else. Amazingly, for a film about an unknown director, unknown actors and the substrate of Hollywood we hardly ever see, there are virtually no bit parts in The Disaster Artist, with Franco cramming in so many celebrity cameos that the atmosphere quickly turns cloistered and claustrophobic in its knowing self-regard. It also means, more pragmatically, that Franco never has to deal with a consistent foil, or can just treat himself as his own foil – there’s something canny about David Simon casting him as both the leads in The Deuce – as all the freshness and strangeness of The Room is subsumed into Franco’s rotating Rolodex.
In other words, Franco’s project is infinitely more stilted and self-regarding than the very thing it is “affectionately” parodying, which is perhaps why the film eventually reaches a point at which it feels as if The Disaster Artist isn’t merely satirising Wiseau but competing with him for his legacy – a bad faith gesture if ever there was one. In the endless rehearsals for the “Hi Mark” scene, in particular, you sense some deep and primal desire on Franco’s part to make an utterance that rivals that one sublime phrase in the reach and scope it’s attained over the last decade. As much as Franco might distantiate himself from Wiseau’s sub-auteurism, the film as a whole feels animated by some profound, if incompletely articulated, envy of Wiseau, as if Franco’s real aspiration were to create something that garnered the same cult status as The Room, and to inhabit something like the cult image of Wiseau, even or especially as every effort he makes to ironically inhabit that cult image just ends up displacing him further from it. Similarly, for a figure who has been so defined by his position outside Hollywood, Wiseau is entirely domesticated by Franco’s brand of insider humour, in what amounts to a willful misreading as much as anything else, as The Room, and all the camp, cult delights it spawned, are distorted and diluted beyond all recognition.
More than any of his other recent ventures, then, The Disaster Artist clarifies Franco’s desperate need to become the spokesperson for any and every subcultural moment he can gets his hands upon. If it were a one-off gesture, you might take it with a certain good faith, but that’s hard given his track record with arrogating what you’d expect to be widely held cult and cultural capital as his own, from his addition to (or intrusion into) William Friedkin’s Cruising to his acquisition of the exclusive rights to all of William Faulkner’s novels. With that kind of anxious obsession with the literary and cinematic past, it’s hard to even take the satirism of The Disaster Artist seriously – and, when all is said and done, Franco only really skewers the film in the same way that a host might skewer an awards ceremony crowd. After all, to really engage with The Room is to acknowledge one’s own comic complicity with the fantasies of Hollywood that Wiseau takes so seriously – that’s part of its pleasure – which is something Franco can never, ever do. Instead, he distances himself more from Wiseau as the film proceeds, until the process of him inviting Wiseau up on stage at the Golden Globes feels more like an act of condescension than collaboration, and the fact of Franco winning the Golden Globe feels almost inevitable given the pandering address of the film itself. Brokering and domesticating Wiseau’s cult status to ensure its own position in the spotlight, The Disaster Artist ultimately feels even more oblivious than The Room, if only because its very irony is what really constitutes Hollywood oblivion at this moment in time.