Movie reviews: James Franco shines as Tommy Wiseau in 'The Disaster Artist'
Published Friday, December 1, 2017 6:00AM EST
THE DISASTER ARTIST: 4 STARS
“The Disaster Artist” details a filmmaker whose artistic ambitions outweighed his talent. The true story of Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer and star of “The Room” is the title character, a man who miraculously and unwittingly turned disaster into triumph.
The story of the making of the worst film ever begins in 1998 at an acting class. Greg Sestero’s (Dave Franco) excerpt from “Waiting for Godot” has severely underwhelmed the teacher. Uptight and timid he’s as stiff as a board onstage. In other words he’s the complete opposite of Wiseau (James Franco), a loose-limbed performer with a wardrobe that looks nicked from Madonna’s closet circa 1986, who is as uninhibited as Greg is clenched.
Tommy is a mysterious figure. He claims to be in his twenties, despite clearly being a child of the 1960s. He says his unusual Eastern European accent hails from New Orleans and insists on not being asked personal questions. Then there is the question of why his bank account is, apparently, bottomless.
As the odd couple gets friendly, Tommy becomes Greg’s mentor. “You have to be the best, Greg,” he says, “and never give up.” They hang out, watch “Rebel Without a Cause”— "You could be like James Dean," Tommy says—and hatch a plan to move to Los Angeles to make their mark in show biz. “I don't want a career,” Tommy says. “I want my own planet.”
Setting up shop in Tommy’s LA pad, they audition and work but an impromptu audition is an epiphany for Wiseau. Spotting a high rolling producer (Judd Apatow) at a fancy restaurant, Tommy recites Shakespeare for the bewildered man. Before being thrown out the producer gives him some advice. “Just because you want it doesn't mean it's going to happen. Even with the talent of Brando it's one in a million and you don't have it. It's not going to happen for you.”
In the face of rejection Tommy decides to take matters into his own hands. “Hollywood rejects us,” he says. “We do it on our own.” He writes “The Room,” a self-proclaimed masterpiece that he will produce, direct and appear in. Of course there is a juicy role in there for Mark as well.
Much of the rest of the movie is spent chronicling the bizarro-land production of the film-within-the-film. Bankrolled by Tommy, the $6 million production was plagued not only by a nonsensical script but Wiseau’s strange behaviour. When Greg moves in with his girlfriend (Alison Brie) Tommy feels betrayed and takes it out on the cast and crew.
The final product is the stuff of legend. “The Room” is an incomprehensible mess, a movie so misguided it starts off bad, gets worse and keeps going, through sheer force of will to become enjoyable. It’s a film so awful audiences can’t take their eyes off it, like a car crash. “Is it still going?” asks Lisa (Ari Graynor), one of the stars of the film through tears and giggles.
The key to pulling off “The Disaster Artist” is not recreating “The Room” beat for beat, although they do that, it’s actually about treating Wiseau as a person and not an object of fun. He’s an outrageous character and Franco commits to it 100 per cent. From the marble-mouthed speech pattern that’s part Valley Girl and part Beaker from The Muppets to the wild clothes and stringy hair, he’s equal parts creepy and lovable but underneath his bravado is real human frailties. Depending on your point of view, he’s either delusional or aspirational but in Franco’s hands he’s never also never less than memorable. It’s a broad, strange performance but it may also be one of the actor’s best.
“The Disaster Artist” is a character study about the power of dreams. Even if it isn’t in the way Tommy intended, audiences have fun at “The Room” screenings. “How often do you think Hitchcock got a response like this?” asks Greg as the crowd roars with laughter.
The new film is a love letter to the movies and how they are the stuff dreams are made of. As for the success of Tommy’s dream? It’s like what Adam Scott says about “The Room” in one of the film’s celebrity testimonials, “Who watches the best picture from a decade ago? But people are still watching ‘The Room.’”
SWEET VIRGINIA: 4 STARS
Centred on a motel in a small Alaskan town, “Sweet Virginia” is a story of place and people gripped by greed, frustration and murder.
Christopher Abbott is Elwood, a dead-eyed psychopath who comes to town to do a job. He’s been hired by Lila (Imogen Poots) to kill her cheating husband Mitchell. He does the hit, callously killing two innocent bystanders in the process. Waiting for his money he checks into the motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo star now sidelined by injuries. The two men strike up a friendship as Elwood grows edgy and unpredictable waiting for Lila to cough up his fee.
“Sweet Virginia” is a tense and tawdry neo-noir about people on the edge. Much is left unsaid by characters whose life histories are hinted at but never explained. Sam’s limp and shaking hand suggest trauma, Elwood’s rage is illuminated in a one-sided phone to his mother while Lila remains a mystery, a small town cypher. Bernthal and Poots perform with understated grace. Abbott is a coiled spring but with enough moments of humanity to prevent becoming a stereotype.
Director Jamie M. Dagg builds on the film’s atmosphere all the way through. The tiny town and the twin senses of isolation and desperation bring all the story elements together to a slow boil. There is some action but this is a character study, not a police procedural or even a morality play. It’s part “Double Indemnity,” part “Blood Simple,” taking place in treacherous shadows with very little light.
“Sweet Virginia” takes place against a backdrop of duplicity and dread as Dagg maintains an air of menace that keeps things interesting.
SUCK IT UP: 3 STARS
“Suck it Up” is a buddy flick where the main characters aren’t exactly buddies.
When we first meet Ronnie (Grace Glowicki), she’s a drunk rebounding from the death of her brother Garrett. Constantly on the tipple, she almost winds up in the hospital after a lawn mowing accident. Concerned and looking for help for her out-of-control daughter, mother Dina (Nancy Kerr) calls Faye (Erin Carter), Ronnie’s former best buttoned-down friend and Garrett’s ex-girlfriend. Faye responded differently to Garrett’s death. Although they broke up a year before his passing, she is troubled that she didn’t pick up a phone call from her ex just days before his death. Cue intimacy issues.
When an intervention of sorts fails, Faye kidnaps Ronnie—ie: puts her passed out body in the front seat of Garrett’s Mustang convertible—and heads for Garrett’s family cottage in Invermere, B.C. What was planned as a time of introspection and sobriety becomes something else as the women’s differences take center stage. Each processes, their grief in a different way as they try and find some common ground other than their relationships with Garrett. The longer they spend in the country, the more insight into each other and into the nature of their time with Garrett, for better and for worse.
“Suck it Up” is anchored by two great performances from Glowicki and Carter. As Ronnie and Faye they are polar opposites bound by a single factor, Garrett. Thrown together, they are an odd couple, damaged and not so sure of their resilience. As surprising revelations about Garrett (who we never see) emerge the leads shift and change in believable ways. At the risk of making this bouncy little film seem heavier than it actually is, I’ll say that it understands and conveys how grief and perspective are two entirely different things and does so with heartfelt humour. It’s a not exactly a startlingly new observation, but it is earnest and well portrayed.
I could have done without the climatic and cathartic mud fight scene but the movie sparkles in enough ways to make up for one grubby misstep.
RADIUS: 3 ½ STARS
“Radius,” a new piece of speculative fiction starring Diego Klattenhoff and Charlotte Sullivan, comes with a premise Rod Serling might have admired.
The high concept is simple. For unknown reasons amnesiac Liam Hartwell (Klattenhoff) is a walking, talking death machine. Anyone within a fifty-foot radius of him keels over, instantly collapsing in a lifeless heap. As the bodies pile up, he hides out in a remote farmhouse, shut off from people. Overcome by guilt, he grapples with his condition, trying to formulate a life plan that does not involve instantaneous mortality for those in his circle.
Into this charged situation comes Jane Doe (Sullivan), another amnesiac who is immune to his death stare. Turns out when she’s around, everyone who comes into the kill zone is also safe. The pair hit the road in an effort to piece together the fragments of memory that haunt them both and hopefully get to the bottom of Liam’s deadly disorder.
The big challenge of “Radius” is keeping the mystery compelling for ninety minutes. It’s an intriguing idea, but it’s also a one-note idea. Until Jane shows up, that is. Then the ”Twilight Zone” premise opens up, allowing for deeper mystery and questions about the very essence of how memory shapes who we are as people. Writer-directors Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard gently pull the story into focus, beginning with scenes of disorientation that give way to an ending that packs an emotional wallop.
“Radius” is not without its flaws. The film’s budgetary restrictions are apparent throughout and there is some stilted acting but this is intelligent sci fi, a film whose ideas and open-ended questions are more important than its budget.