James Franco works so much, I often wonder if he takes any time to reflect on the films he produces. His IMDb page boasts 36 directing credits, with about 20 of them being feature films, all of which have been released in the last 12 years. Beginning with 2011’s The Broken Tower, Franco has made a habit of focusing his narrative filmmaking output on adaptations of literature.
Most notably, he has directed adaptations of two novels by William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Franco reads a book, likes it, and decides to make it into a film. That’s the most straightforward description of a director I can think of. With Franco, his intention is so transparent: to bring books to life. As far as his recurring narrative and thematic intentions, I confess I do not see them. One could assume that Franco makes film in an effort to advertise the books they are based on. This isn’t a dig at Franco at all — it is a noble cause for a director to undertake.
The fact remains that while he has devoted himself to translating the written word to the silver screen, his “story” as an artist is much more difficult to parse. Franco has made films about actor Sal Mineo, poet Hart Crane, writer Charles Bukowski, among others. He also has a habit of adapting poems into shorts. In terms of his documentaries (of which he has made several) his artistic intention seems to be re-contextualizing film and television we have already seen and making something new out of it. If I were to pull out a recurring narrative that is weaved within all his feature films, I would have to go with the most obvious answer: Franco makes films about complicated, enigmatic white men. That is definitely the case with The Disaster Artist.
Franco directed, produced and stars in The Disaster Artist, playing the role of Tommy Wiseau. The film is based on the book of the same name. His brother Dave Franco stars as Greg Sestero, the young actor who forms an unlikely friendship with Wiseau. This could easily be a matter of actors choosing the most interesting to roles to play, but I think in this case it’s more than that. To want to play a man like Tommy, and to cast your real-life younger brother in the role of his young protégé, suggests a deep connection and possible affection for the material.
With a different director, The Disaster Artist could have easily been a thriller. On paper, the entire story sounds deranged. A wealthy, mysterious older man meets and befriends a much younger guy, forms a friendship with him and they both move to Los Angeles together. The friendship quickly shifts from innocent and supportive to codependent and toxic. The younger guy loses acting opportunities, his girlfriend and presumably countless potential friends due to his association with his eccentric older friend (and benefactor). Their relationship has all the makings of a tragic tale of love and jealousy, culminating in a monstrous testament to their unhealthy attachment — The Room.
The film plays out like a darkly comedic svengali tale, with a homoerotic subtext that is difficult to ignore. Franco’s films often delve into queer themes, and he is clearly leaning into them here. Tommy “creates” Greg and wants Greg to be permanently indebted to him. When Greg gets a girlfriend, cracks in their friendship begin to form. Tommy is a man driven by jealousy and a necessity to be the center of attention at all times, especially when he’s around Greg. He wants Greg to love him, but he also wants Greg to fear him and never leave him. Their entire relationship seems to be based on Tommy wanting Greg isolated from everyone and everything that he may grow to love more than him.
In one comically tragic scene, Greg leaves his worried mother, gets into Tommy’s white Mercedes and they drive away. We never see Greg’s mother again in the film, although her voice can be heard on a phone call near the end. Knowing what we all know now about The Room and Greg’s failed acting career, we know that the faithful car ride to “pursue their dreams” didn’t turn out the way he wanted at all. And yet, here we are, watching a film that effectively glorifies his — and Tommy’s — greatest failure.
The entire film is full of scenes that would play as depressing if it weren’t for the capable comedic performers involved. An impressive ensemble cast that includes Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Ari Graynor, Charlyne Yi and a laundry list of other familiar faces that have become a mainstay in comedy for decades. Paul Scheer is a standout — delivering a dramatic performance that many of his previous roles have never afforded him. Scheer and Rogen (as DP Raphael Smadja and script supervisor Sandy Schklair, respectively) act as the voice of reason for The Disaster Artist. Every time we start to have too much fun, they remind us how unsafe and abusive the real-life set of The Room actually was.
James Franco transforms himself completely into Tommy Wiseau. His performance really does live up to the hype. He speaks in an almost unintelligible accent, his pronunciation of common words is distorted. He moves awkwardly, lumbering around like a Frankenstein-esque creature. He has no sense of boundaries or personal space. Franco creates a portrait of a man who spends every waking moment of his life obsessed with his image, even though its one no one (aside from Greg) seems to like. The best thing about Tommy is his optimism; he blindly runs toward the fabled “American Dream” with no intention of stopping.
His core tragedy is that his best friend also happens to be the man he’s most jealous of. Greg has the handsome face, charm and likability that Tommy lacks. He could have gotten everything he wanted, if he had pursued his dreams separate from Tommy. Though Tommy has all the money to live and do whatever he wants, his jealousy of Greg — and arguably everyone else who is more well-liked than him — leaves him frequently enraged and in a permanent slump.
Why then is the ending of the film so hopeful? Why did Franco decide to frame The Disaster Artist as a tale about the triumph of the human spirit? Tommy is a tragic figure who creates a cult film by mistake, yes, but he is also a manipulative, abusive and domineering man who sabotages his friend’s acting career out of spite. In the film, we see Tommy spies on his cast and crew, deprives them of food and water and harasses his lead actress on set in front of everyone. Perhaps it’s the current climate, but I simply cannot endorse a film that excuses and glorifies the abusive behavior of a rich and powerful man with a victim complex.