WNPR

Delusions Of Grandeur Take Center Stage In James Franco's 'Disaster Artist'

Dec 1, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 2003, a huge billboard appeared on Sunset Boulevard advertising a movie called "The Room," directed by and starring the completely unknown Tommy Wiseau. Partly because of that billboard, the film attracted viewers and soon a sizable cult proclaiming it the worst movie ever made. Now there's a fictional film about the making of "The Room." It's called "The Disaster Artist" and is directed by James Franco, who also plays Tommy Wiseau. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Biopics are typically reserved for great men or women - Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth I. But there's a modern variation gaining its own kind of prestige, the anti-great-person film. In "Ed Wood," "Florence Foster Jenkins" and now James Franco's "The Disaster Artist," we're invited to laugh at people with tons of ambition and drive, more than most of us have, but no talent whatsoever. I'm tempted to tisk tisk over the subgenre for moral reasons. It's not kind, it's not humane to make sport of other people's failings. But the movies are just so funny. The springboard for "The Disaster Artist" is the stupefyingly terrible 2003 soft core melodrama "The Room," which became a cult sensation.

I think it's actually pretty boring. But its director, writer, star and financier, Tommy Wiseau, played in "The Disaster Artist" by James Franco, is a true oddity. He sends audiences into hysterics. Although he's always claimed to be from the Louisiana bayou, his accent, faithfully duplicated by Franco, is pitched somewhere between Eastern Europe and Mongolia. His pidgin English recalls Hollywood's immigrant gangsters and his slurry diction suggests neurological damage, which isn't far-fetched, since he tells people he was once in a terrible car accident.

The lead role he penned for himself in "The Room" is a generous man and great lover named Johnny, who's betrayed by his conniving fiance and best friend, Mark. "The Disaster Artist" suggests that's exactly how Wiseau sees himself. The movie's protagonist isn't Wiseau but Greg Sestero, engagingly played by Dave Franco, James' brother. Sestero played Mark in "The Room" and co-wrote the book on which this film is based, the overly optimistically titled "The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made." Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's script depicts Sestero as an actor of conventional handsomeness but marginal talent.

Agents look at him more than once but rarely three times. In the first part, Wiseau whisks Sestero from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where he puts the young man up in his expensive apartment and exhorts him to act with his heart, soul and alas, hambone. After a number of squirmy Hollywood humiliations, Wiseau dips into a mysteriously limitless reserve of cash and writes "The Room" for himself and his roommate, for whom he has feelings that clearly edge beyond bromance. The shooting of the most flabbergastingly terrible moments from "The Room" are turned into sustained comic set pieces.

Chief among them is a rooftop scene in which Wiseau's Johnny, unjustly accused by his fiance of hitting her, emerges from a stairwell, laments his plight and then notices his friend Mark. Seth Rogen is the assistant director, who watches take after failed take until Dave Franco's Sestero helps his flailing friend out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DISASTER ARTIST")

SETH ROGEN: (As Sandy) Take 67. Action.

JAMES FRANCO: (As Tommy) It's not true. I did not hit her. It's [expletive].

DAVE FRANCO: (As Greg) Hey, hey, hey.

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) What?

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) OK, maybe just use this. You know, I think it'll help you...

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) Water bottle?

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) ...Take your mind off - hey, hey, listen, listen. What do you always say to me, all right? Intensity, show emotion, throw it. Do something crazy. Use the bottle.

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) Oh, show emotion.

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) Yes.

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) That's easy part. Why don't you say that to me before, Greg?

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) I don't know. I didn't...

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) You see, Greg, these other guys, these other people, they don't care like you care, you know?

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) I care, yeah, yeah.

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) OK, we'll do this together.

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) Me and you, man. You got this.

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) Show emotion.

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) Yes.

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) OK.

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) OK.

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) I'll do it.

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) All right. All right.

ROGEN: (As Sandy) All right.

D. FRANCO: (As Greg) All right, let's see.

ROGEN: (As Sandy) Oh, we've got a bottle now. Look out. Action.

J. FRANCO: (As Tommy) I did not hit her. It's not true. It's [expletive]. I did not hit her. I did not. Oh, hi, Mark.

EDELSTEIN: "The Disaster Artist" is best-viewed as a pedestal for the ultimate James Franco performance. It's his "Lincoln." Whatever my queasiness about laughing at a head case, I couldn't help but thrill to Franco's 10-point Olympic high dive into a narcissism that has no bottom. I can't believe his co-stars, among them Ari Graynor, as the room's leading lady, and Alison Brie, as the woman Greg moves in with, could keep a straight face. My one qualm is with the finale in which Wiseau, shattered by the derision for his film, begins to accept that the premiere audience's riotous laughter has a bright side.

It will ultimately bring him the celebrity he craves. That dodges the ultimate question. Does he fully understand the prodigiousness of his lack of talent? And here's the question I'm still wrestling with. Does the audience deserve to be morally let off the hook for enjoying someone else's delusions of grandeur?

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, Daniel Ellsberg, best known for leaking the classified Pentagon Papers. But back then, the former military analyst had other documents he wanted to leak. In his new book "The Doomsday Machine," he writes about our government's nuclear capabilities. The documents he once copied and hid have been released through the Freedom of Information Act. Join us.

Finally, a note about yesterday's show. Yesterday on FRESH AIR during a panel discussion about this turning point in how allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault are handled, one of the men included on a list of journalists alleged to have committed acts of sexual harassment or assault was David Corn, the Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones. After the broadcast, Mother Jones' editor in chief Clara Jeffery and CEO Monika Bauerlein contacted us to say that although women had raised concerns in the past about Corn's language and uninvited touching, those allegations were investigated, addressed and resolved at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "HAPPY TUNE")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "HAPPY TUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.