Growing up, I was constantly told by my teachers and parents that I was smart. School was always easy for me, and my report card was always filled with A’s. When graduating high school, my class rank was #6 out of over 800 students, and I received a full scholarship to the University of Texas as an honors biomedical engineering student. And I barely had to try.
Being told you are smart is an addiction, and there are only two ways to get your next hit. The first option is to keep doing smart things, but that takes hard work and skill. The second, easier option is to do mediocre things with minimal effort. You get a B on the history test, but it’s OK because you did not try. You tell yourself, “If only I put in the effort, I would easily succeed.” You run away from the fact that sometimes you try your hardest and still screw up.
* * *
James Franco is a douche. Vanity Fair titled an article last year “James Franco Makes for a Magnificent Douche in Why Him?“. The subtitle states, “The multi-talent has clearly found his true niche.” Douchiness is most commonly caused by getting things too easily. Franco is too handsome, too talented, and too successful. And he makes all that success seem easy with his brilliant smile.
In short, Franco is the exact opposite of Tommy Wiseau. The first half of The Disaster Artist primarily focuses on Tommy’s failed attempts to become a working actor in Los Angeles. Even though Tommy is a terrible actor, his earnestness and support for his friend Greg endear Tommy to the audience. We want Tommy to be successful even though we know (as Judd Apatow’s characters states) “it will never happen. Not in a million years.”
Franco’s performance as Tommy Wiseau is masterful and arguably his best work yet. The technical brilliance of his acting is best highlighted during three scenes: 1) The hilarious audition when Wiseau has to put on an American accent 2) The post-credits scene with the actual Tommy Wiseau 3) The almost perfect recreations of scenes from The Room that play during the credits. And with James co-starring alongside his younger brother Dave, the audience can even forget that the elder Franco is actually an incredibly handsome man. James Franco truly becomes Tommy Wiseau on the screen.
However while Franco’s technical performance is impressive, The Disaster Artist and The Room itself are great because they have heart. Plenty of bad movies exist. Some are lazy cash grabs. Some are intentionally bad. On the other hand, The Room actually tries to be good. In the climactic scene of The Disaster Artist, Tommy runs out of the premiere because the audience is not reacting to the film as he wished. The reception to Wiseau’s supposedly serious piece is only raucous laughter.
Of course, Greg is able to save the day by convincing Tommy that laughter is a valuable response. While they may not think The Room is a good movie, the audience does love it. All the effort Tommy has put in has paid off, just not as he expected.
No one could set out to make a movie like The Room because they would be trying to do so ironically. David Foster Wallace repeatedly warned about the dangers of irony:
All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.
The only solution is to unironically care, so that the resulting work can carry a sincere message.
Franco’s reputation as a douche is unearned. The James Dean lookalike may have gotten lucky and been given some divine talent at birth, but he actually puts in the work. After years of acting in hit films, Franco was nominated for an Oscar with his performance in 127 Hours. He has multiple graduate degrees, lectures at UCLA, and even paints. For The Disaster Artist, Franco directed, produced, and starred in the film. No matter how easy he makes his success look, the actor has clearly put a staggering amount of work into his career.
If, like me, you don’t put in the effort then you will fail out of college. If, like Franco, you put in the work then you can create something great like The Disaster Artist. The film works because Franco and Wiseau are fundamentally the same; they give a damn about creating.