‘James Franco is making a film about the making of the worst film ever made.’
‘Oh, you mean Moulin Rouge?’
‘No, the other one.’
There’s something special about good actors portraying bad actors – something truly special that only a really fine actor can do: portray someone giving a terrible performance. The thing that always jumps to mind when this thought arises is a scene in the 1991 film Bugsy, when Warren Beatty – as the titular gangster – does a screen test and delivers his lines without a trace of presence or understanding of performance. A small, throwaway scene, but it gives someone the likes of a Beatty (a great actor) to convincingly play someone who hasn’t the first clue how to deliver dialogue.
The new gold standard is James Franco, who in directing himself as cult figure Tommy Wiseau, gives one of those all-in performances that Franco may have intended as a form of performance art, but winds up being a superb bit of acting. The level of post-modern interpretation and analysis to be found within this thing will be astonishing, and doubtlessly analysed for years to come. Maybe even somewhat ironic: here we have someone making great art out of the making of bad art. There has to be a certain level of genius and artistic insight to be able to pull that off.
The Disaster Artist is, bizarrely, a great film. The explanation behind that is even more bizarre, in that James Franco has gone and made such a great film about the making of The Room, a notoriously bad one. His full-throated, fully immersive performance is the standout feature – you can’t help but marvel at what a bizarre creature this Wiseau is, as well as the added bonus of knowing that he’s a real life person and that what’s happening on screen is fact-based. The rest of the cast is filled with recongisable faces (Bryan Cranston, Melanie Griffith and Sharon Stone all cameo), with the full cast made up of the Franco-Rogen inner sanctum (everyone’s in on the gag, including the full cadre of hosts from the How Did This Get Made? podcast).
The immediate comparison you could make is that of Tim Burton’s brilliant 1994 comedy Ed Wood, where Johnny Depp played the man behind Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space. It was Depp’s (and Burton’s) best work to date, and it went on to win Martin Landau an Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi. It was Burton’s love letter to talentless dreamers: yes, we have no talent, but we want to do this anyway. Wiseau, within The Disaster Artist, makes comparisons of himself to Kubrick and Hitchcock, which in a roundabout sort of way, are accurate. Were either of those two actually geniuses, and if so, who decided as much? They both just started making movies and ended up being legends. Who decided they were geniuses? If they are, why can’t Tommy be?
The Disaster Artist is much of the same as Ed Wood – philosophically – but Franco’s work also stands as an exploratory bit of performance art, in that one person could spend a reported $6 million on something so palpably bad and essentially maintain character throughout it and the subsequent fandom it earned. This level of delusion that he was talented, an actor, an auteur… anything other than a potato-faced ghoul with a mysterious accent, wonky eye and bizarre laugh.
You don’t have to have seen The Room (I haven’t; life’s too short to see a bad film on purpose; I’d rather see a good film again) to get the full impact of this great piece of work; the small segments of the original work that were either incorporated into the final film, or as part of a side-by-side montage at the film’s end shows you what kind of garbage it was. You get the point (although, someone did throw a handful of plastic spoons at the screen at the film’s conclusion – that probably has some meaning).
I genuinely love this movie. It’s easily one of the year’s best.