The Director Has No Clothes (feat. Josh Spiegel)
If you’ve seen “The Room,” you know it transcends the filmic category of “so bad it’s good.” There’s a sense of tragedy, ambition, and madness all bubbling somewhere in that 2003 cult phenomenon, a phenomenon celebrated and investigated by James Franco’s new drama/comedy, “The Disaster Artist.”
This week, with the help of film critic and Mousterpiece Cinema host Josh Spiegel, we dig into three films about movie directors producing real trash and dragging along bands of confused conspirators. We watched “The Disaster Artist”, “Ed Wood,” and “Bowfinger” to examine the psyches of directors, real and fictional, who maybe should have called “cut” on the whole project.
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2:30 – Your hosts recount seeing the “The Room” on the day they met.
6:50 – Chance and Noah dig into “The Disaster Artist,” weighing whether James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau pushes beyond caricature.
23:30 – Chance calls up Josh Spiegel, host of the Mousterpiece Cinema podcast and contributor to Slash Film and The Hollywood Reporter. They discuss Josh’s recent essay comparing “The Disaster Artist” and “Ed Wood” and try to parse out the levels of exploitation that exist for the cast of “The Room” today.
43:30 – Your hosts pick out their favorite moments of Martin Landau’s incredible embodiment of Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood” and try to decide where this 1994 film ranks in Tim Burton’s filmography.
55:45 – We wrap up the show with 1999’s “Bowfinger” and can’t quite figure out what’s going on behind or within Steve Martin’s portrayal of a fictional, filmmaking huckster.
It’s difficult to think of an onscreen retelling outside of hardcore fantasy or sci-fi fare that will mean so much to some people and so precious little to the uninitiated as “The Disaster Artist.” James Franco’s new part-tribute and part-character study may not absolutely necessitate having seen “The Room” — the cult favorite of which it depicts the making, and that’s slowly garnered such memorable backhanded praise as “the best bad movie of all time.” But for folks who haven’t popped a shoulder tendon chucking spoons at a midnight screening and might think “The Room” is that Brie Larson drama, approximating their reaction to “The Disaster Artist” is a near-impossible thought experiment. You can’t unsee “The Room,” after all. Once you’ve witnessed Tommy Wiseau’s almost geologically bizarre backside and had your mind infiltrated by his Yugoslav surfer idiolect, it’s in there forever.
But let’s try. If you’ve never seen “The Room,” I would speculate “The Disaster Artist” will at first strike you as a bit familiar. A young actor, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), has big ambitions but is failing to stand out in his drama classes. He’s as handsome as a matinee idol but an unappealing combination of jittery and wooden. Greg is confronted immediately by the presence of Tommy (James Franco), a mysterious fellow drama student who wears belts like they’re bangles and whose major acting totem seems only to be the “STELLAAAAAAA” scene from “Streetcar.” After becoming fast, void-filling friends, they move to LA together and face widespread rejection as bizarro roommates. With a dream, a hastily assembled script, and Tommy’s mysteriously bottomless bank account, they decide to make their own movie. It’s called “The Room.” It came out in 2003 to no acclaim and no attention, and it’s grown to be a kind of “Rock Horror” for this generation of wise-ass amateur critics who take joy in entertainment’s failure. (I’m guilty. Very guilty. Isn’t that like a quarter of this podcast?)
“The Disaster Artist,” based on Greg Sestero’s book of the same name, takes the audience through every step of a catastrophic production: from Tommy deciding to shoot the movie on both film and digital, to the dozens of takes Wiseau needed just to open a door and deliver a few lines he himself wrote, to Tommy’s deteriorating mental state as his crew comes to grips with having to make it through a shoot run by a dictatorial multi-hyphenate without the slightest bit of self-awareness.
I have to think that regardless whether you’ve seen Wiseau’s film that James Franco’s portrayal has the power to fascinate. What the director and star of “The Disaster Artist” understands in his bones about a movie that’s held up almost exclusively by its unbridled and mockable passion is that he has to equally commit or there’s no game. Even though the vast majority of the moviegoing public has no idea who Tommy Wiseau is, this is the kind of effortful biopic swing that makes you forget the subject for a couple hours. Franco masters the voice first and foremost but also brings to life a deep, pained combination of willpower and vulnerability as Wiseau. Where “The Disaster Artist” succeeds most dramatically is where Franco’s endeavor is as ridiculous as “The Room” itself. You’re watching someone try to put forth a Day-Lewis level of commitment toward playing someone best known for making an unintentionally hilarious movie that prominently features his own ass. Franco is more interested in this text than anyone ought to be, and his movie has the charm of both feeling like it was made by not only an obsessive but someone genuinely interested in how one person’s dream turns into several million people’s favorite 90-minute punchline. Meanwhile, as Greg Sestero, Dave Franco is far less convincing than his older brother. This is mostly forgivable, even if it stops the movie from rising above its source material. Greg doesn’t have to be as interesting as Tommy. He’s the Nick Carraway of this tragedy of art and success story of entertainment.
If you’re a fan of “The Room,” there’s almost no way you won’t find “The Disaster Artist” to be a kind of psychological dessert, one you maybe didn’t even know you were hungry for. For one, there’s the backward, visual pleasure of seeing famous people portray actors who are known for being the opposite of famous. That balding, bespectacled fellow who falls down catching the football is played by Nathan Fielder in a movie that feels like one giant “Nathan For You” episode. What else is there, really?
On a more significant level, “The Disaster Artist” humanizes “The Room” (if not Wiseau) in a few meaningful ways. Here’s a movie that is largely appreciated because its viewers think they’re smarter and more cinema-literate than the people who made the movie. Yet Franco’s movie puts the power back in the artists’ hands, particularly in moments spent with the supporting cast, who will take on the sometimes degrading work of being in a movie because it’s their dream. Read “The Room” like a diary, this new film seems to ask us, as the genuine pathological product of a man who is utterly baffling but who wants something everyone understands. Wasn’t his fear and spite and vanity real, even if he could only get it across via a funhouse mirror? “The Disaster Artist” asks us to be inquisitive about the art we love, even the butts of our favorite jokes.
our favorite movies
Be Reel is a movie reviewing & reappraising podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard.
Each time out, we select three movies based around a genre and call up guests ranging from submarine captains to Oscar winners. Then, we rate the movies, weighing both technical quality and entertainment.
Noah and Chance are old friends who mostly respect each other’s opinions. Even though Chance is a fool and a traitor. Find their show presented at ThePlaylist.Net and follow them on Twitter for the latest on Noah’s literary agenting and Chance’s work in the Portland arts scene.