THE DISASTER ARTIST. So ... The Room. When I became aware of The Room, sometime in the mid-2000s, it was only peripherally. I was still avidly reading Sight & Sound and FilmComment and Movie Maker, spending a fair amount of time at the video store and building an almost impenetrable Netflix queue; I was into it. In the midst of this nerdery, references to this bizarre, ultra-independent, lowest-of-fi ventures built up until my curiosity got the best of me and I watched it.
Here's what I knew when I first saw it: An eternally mysterious figure named Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Room, completing it in 2003. Wiseau financed the project entirely with his own money, going so far as to pay for billboards advertising it in Hollywood and screening it in a theater long enough to qualify for the Academy Awards. What I didn't know then was that the movie was the product of the relatively new friendship between Wiseau and his co-star Greg Sestero. The two apparently met in an acting class in San Francisco — Greg's ambition hampered by his shyness, Tommy's by his complete lack of self-awareness/attention to craft. They moved to Los Angeles to take over the entertainment industry, encountered the sort of rejection and frustration that have become boilerplate in these types of stories, and decided to make their own movie. Tommy labored over the screenplay for years, then purchased his own equipment (!), hired a crew, rented a location and made the thing. The shoot, troubled from the start, became a pressure cooker as it overran its schedule and eventually turned a microscope on the insecurities and eccentricities of its would-be auteur. It also tested the relationship between Tommy and Greg, almost past the breaking point, and Greg wrote a book about it with Tom Bissell called The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapted that account into a screenplay, and James Franco directed what is now playing in theaters across the land: a very good movie about the making of one of the worst movies ever made. To paraphrase Franco, it cost $6 million and looks like $60.
Franco plays Tommy, with his younger brother Dave as Greg. Their dynamic is weird, awkward and, in context, entirely believable. Greg sees in Tommy an enviable fearlessness, Tommy sees in Greg the possibility of having a true friend, maybe for the first time in his life. It's sweet to watch, a kind of fractured love story that builds them both up. But when they start production on the movie, the cracks start to expand, threatening the very structure of their friendship.
The thing is, Tommy was and is a willfully obscured individual, a cypher. He seems to be of obvious Eastern European extraction but insists that he is from New Orleans. He appears to have almost limitless financial resources. He is of indeterminate age and generally dresses like some sort of hybrid pirate/hair-metal side man. And despite his apparent lack of stage fright or self-consciousness, he seems to have always been desperately lonely. So when he perceives that is friendship with Greg is threatened (by Greg's new girlfriend or potential career success, for example), he reacts with oversized and imprecise defensiveness, lashing out at everyone around him and isolating himself again. Lacking exposure to the source material, one might think Franco's performance over-dramatized, crass or unfair, but it's not. He's faithful to the truth of Tommy Wiseau and while he occasionally embellishes, he focuses on his character's sadness and craving for connection. That emphasis carries through the narrative of the entire movie and it has managed to change my thinking about The Room itself.
See, Tommy intended the movie to be a grand dramatic gesture, an opening of his heart to the world, but people can't help but laugh at it, hysterically and without pause. When I saw it the first time, it made me sad to know that so many people were watching it ironically, cynically. The movie is awful, make no mistake. The story is nonsensical, the acting wooden and bizarre, the production value non-existent. To my eye, it's not "so bad it's good," it's just bad and I felt embarrassed for everyone involved.
The Disaster Artist helped me to look at The Room through the lens of kindness and admiration through which Franco seems to see it, though. Sure, Wiseau made a terrible movie that almost ruined his one real human relationship. Sure, audiences howl with laughter he never intended. But it has been making those audiences happy for almost 15 years now (it plays to packed houses all over the world, often with its creator in attendance). It has made a sort of folk-hero of Tommy Wiseau and, hopefully, brought him some happiness and connection. More power to him. R. 103m. BROADWAY.
THELMA. An artfully shot, lugubriously paced horror-drama from Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier describing the very particular trouble that befalls a girl (Thelma, played with unnerving fearlessness by Eili Harboe) when she leaves her repressive parents for the first time to attend college. As she begins to fall for a new found friend, the religious indoctrination of her upbringing causes her severe guilt, triggering seizures with some devastating side effects. This forces her to reexamine buried events of her childhood and make some deep, troubling discoveries about the past. "Enjoyable" might be a misleading word to use but I found it beautiful and dark and thoughtful and, ultimately, kind of redemptive. NR. 116m. BROADWAY.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
ELF (2003). Will Ferrell is too big for the North Pole in this sugar-addled holiday comedy with Bob Newhart and James Caan. PG. 97m. BROADWAY.
FERDINAND. A domestic bull sent to a farm tries to get home to his family in this animated adventure. Voiced by John Cena, Kate McKinnon and Bobby Cannavale. PG. 106m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. One more trip around the stars with Carrie Fisher, as the human/droid gang battles the dark side. Keep your spoilers to yourself, you scruffy nerf herder. With Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver. PG13. 152m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
THE BREADWINNER. Animated movie about a young Afghani girl who pretends to be a boy so she can feed her family under the oppressive regime of the Taliban. PG13. 94m. MINIPLEX.
COCO. Young musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) goes on a quest to the Land of the Dead to circumvent his family's generations-old ban on music in this Pixar animated feature. With Gael García Bernal. PG. 109m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
DADDY'S HOME 2. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg reprise their roles as "co-dads," this time struggling with their own polar opposite dads (racist boil Mel Gibson and John Lithgow) with mildly humorous and pointedly heartwarming results. A benign and forgettable signal that Ferrell isn't trying anymore. PG13. 98m. BROADWAY.
JANE. Documentary about Jane Goodall's personal and professional life in the early days of her work with chimpanzees. NR. 90m. MINIPLEX.
JUST GETTING STARTED. Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones play alpha seniors battling for the top spot in a resort community until one of them reveals he's in the witness protection program. PG13. 91m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
JUSTICE LEAGUE. Batman (Ben Affleck) teams up with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Flash (Ezra Miller) and a butched-up Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to save the world. PG13. 121m. BROADWAY.
LOVING VINCENT. An animated drama in the style of Vincent van Gogh created with thousands of oil paintings and depicting a man's investigation into the artist's death. Starring Douglas Booth and Robert Gulaczyk. PG13. 94m. MINIPLEX.
LADY BIRD. Saoirse Ronan stars in writer/director Greta Gerwig's heartbreaking, funny and terribly true film about being a teenager. Immersive performances by Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts give us an intimate look at a family from the inside. R. 93m. MINOR.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Director Kenneth Branagh dons a massive mustache as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot alongside a stellar cast of suspects (Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer). Rich sets and slower pacing embraces old-fashioned movie making for a beautiful, compelling mystery. PG13. 114m. MILL CREEK.
THOR: RAGNAROK. Director Taika Waititi keeps Marvel's high drama but balances it with humor and and a nimble, entertaining story. Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum excel as very different villains. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Tom Hiddleston. PG13. 130m. BROADWAY.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. A sterling cast (Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Peter Dinklage) does admirable work in a drama about a small-town murder but the film unravels in the last act. R. 115m. MILL CREEK, MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill