Director James Franco's "The Disaster Artist" reminded me of a non-joke that popularly circulated when I was a kid. It goes like this: Two elephants are in a bathtub and, when one says to the other, "Pass the soap," the other elephant informs, "No soap, radio."
You tell it and then you laugh, intentionally flummoxing your little friend who, afraid he'll look stupid if he doesn't laugh, chortles despite wondering why it's funny. Several decades since, I question, just a little, if the joke was actually on the jester ... that somewhere there was humor in the put-on.
Such, more or less, is the territory into which "The Disaster Artist" gleefully tosses its viewers, a joke wrapped around a gag that is only funny because of its unfunniness. Even if you're sort of in on the sham because you know the feature-length inside joke is a chronicle of how the mysterious Tommy Wiseau cobbled together "The Room," a film now enjoying cult status at hipster art houses, it is still inconceivably nutty.
Franco, who also stars as Tommy, delves with magnificent gusto into the maelstrom of absurdity, in the process adding his own screwy lilt.
Call it a sub-genre of the Warhol meme that everyone will eventually enjoy some sort of fame for 15 minutes. But Tommy, who says he's from New Orleans despite giving the impression that he emanated from thin air before showing up in a San Francisco acting class, is obviously discontent with that measly amount of promised celebrity. Soliciting the friendship of classmate Greg Sestero, played by Dave Franco, he convinces his new buddy that their destiny among the stars awaits in Los Angeles.
Quite conveniently, Tommy, with no explanation of either his indiscernible accent or the origin of his apparent wealth, just so happens to have an apartment in the City of Angels. There, once ensconced, the two hopeful novices begin their pursuit of the Hollywood dream. But while Greg, who Tommy nicknames "Baby Face," soon scores an agent, and the two gain a hobnobbing relationship with a cadre of wannabes, the brass ring eludes. Angry but undaunted, Tommy says he won't be deprived of greatness. He'll make his own movie, and Greg will star.
Sparing no expense, he rents a studio, buys its filming equipment and hires an estimable crew of actors and production people to film the screenplay of his 540-page, unpublished novel, "The Room." A surreal atmosphere prevails as Tommy, who obviously knows nothing about motion-picture production, sets about establishing his oddball imprimatur. The baffled hirelings follow in lockstep, not too unlike today's swamp creature sycophants in Washington. Anything goes.
In this ultimately harmless show-biz perpetration, unlike the threat to democracy the political allusion bodes, there is fun in being abashed by someone who thinks they can take a battering ram to the often impervious walls of Tinsel Town fame and fortune. Mountebanks like Tommy exponentially raise the vicarious hopes of the underdog. And in the process, as etched by Franco, offer an intellectually engaging skepticism about the nature of adulation from a public increasingly swayed, jimmied and heisted by the disingenuous profferings of spin doctors.
In other words, the memo, intentional or otherwise, is that it's OK to imbibe in the fantasy of a Tommy, so long as you keep your thinking cap on when it comes to stuff like government and social values. There, truth is the ultimate beauty, just like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle said. No fake news there. But now, with the lines ever blurring on the border of real life and Reality TV, and folks increasingly looking for that one remote control device to handle all issues, cerebral laziness threatens the hallowed institutions of our republic.
That subtextual civics lesson of my review inserted, and our liberties hence ensured, it here behooves to issue a point of disclosure. Years ago at a block party, a fellow journalist challengingly asked, "You know what's wrong with you movie critics?"
To which I innocently guessed, "We think we know something about film?"
"Yeah that, too," he said, but more to his point stated, "You see so many films that whenever
something different comes along you get all gaga."
Indeed, Franco's nomination-worthy characterization is something different, in its best moments a rollicking buffet of the human ego let loose amidst the backdrop of a Brave, New and Interconnected World. We both laugh at and commiserate with Tommy Wiseau, recognizing in him the universal need for love and approval, albeit gone wild. And, crazy as he seems to be, we thank goodness that at least this "Disaster Artist" hasn't deluded himself into thinking he can transfer his entertainment chops to governing.
"The Disaster Artist," rated R, is an A24 release directed by James Franco and stars James Franco, Dave Franco and Seth Rogen. Running time: 104 minutes
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