The second best decision that James Franco made for The Disaster Artist was casting himself as Tommy Wiseau; his best decision was casting his younger brother, Dave, as Greg Sestero. More than an imitation, the elder Franco hints at this slum-rat showbiz Frankenstein’s motivations, which is remarkable considering that these actor-filmmakers—both Wiseau and Franco—spray mace in the eyes of anyone who peers into their souls.
Greg, however, is an open book. No doubt this wide-eyed quality, which is stuck on him like a sheet of paper that says “Kick me, I’m gullible,” is what turned these strangers in a San Francisco acting class into collaborators in Hollywood. Acting is a dream for Greg, by which I mean it is an aspiration but also a fantasy; someone like Tommy, whose performance style brings to mind a James Dean that was raised by orangutans, might look, to virgin eyes, like an unsung master. Greg skips college and moves to L.A. with his indeterminately older and inexplicably wealthy friend. I’m tempted to call this dude Tommy’s “straight man,” but that’s not altogether clear.
As a love letter to playacting for its own sake, featuring theater people who are older, and presumably hungrier, versions of Lady Bird’s dorky friends, The Disaster Artist is very pleasing. Los Angeles, ever its own most ruthless villain, isn’t the soul-crusher or ball-buster it gets pigeonholed as, nor is it only worth the trouble if you make it big—like the darling dreamers in La La Land. As Jacki Weaver puts it, portraying one of the community-theater stalwarts who lands a role in Tommy’s 2003 cult classic The Room, “Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day in reality.” Issued from a working actress who’s no closer to the pearly gates of Beverly Hills than a kid growing up in Hell, Mich., it’s a touching sentiment.
But the film is also a love letter that James Franco seems to be writing to himself, or at least the part of him that thrives on ersatz mystification. In conversation with Marc Maron, he reveals himself to be a doofus, rather more like Greg than Tommy. This hasn’t been very evident, though, in his decade-long project of making himself an art object. He’s swung back and forth between elite colleges and soap-opera acting, Faulkner adaptations and stoner comedies. Whether he intended it or not—and I’d argue that it doesn’t matter whether he intended it or not—he became the figurehead of selfie culture, lord of the humble brag, and high priest of privilege.
One could extrapolate from his performance art that high-brow works are no “better” than low, which has the fringe benefit of flattering people who think of high-brow as something to wax or weave. But, as with the way he used to flirt with bisexuality, these crumbs of stardust that Franco feeds to the media are meaningless and add up to little more than the obsessively filtered Snap of a glamour-puss: its only objective is to bring attention to itself. It’s the same hellhole down which our politics have descended.
That being said, Franco has made some strides toward self-awareness recently, and even if his soul sisters are the Kardashians, he has the good fortune of having Seth Rogen for a bro and Dave as a blood relative. Rogen, cast as a factotum for The Room, does what he does best, which is act as a human version of the robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. This movie has too much respect for the idea of self-expression, as it exists in a void, to razz The Room too much, but that film has a special place in the hearts of bad-movie lovers because it’s the Trump Administration on film: it ends up cashing in on its own ridiculousness but can’t get the basics right.
And Dave Franco represents why one can trash that filmed monstrosity without holding it in contempt. His career has plenty of time to develop, but, for now, he’s the perfect male ingénue: a swole Benjamin Braddock. Straight white men are not in good repute; they are as likely to be pegged as mass shooters these days as they are good citizens. Chris Pine threaded this needle in Wonder Woman, but the overall vibe was so dutifully woke that it was as if Captain Kirk had been demoted to cadet. I can joke about Hollywood’s jostling this issue without gainsaying the problem, but it isn’t a problem that I intend to offload on Dave Franco’s shoulders.
Bad facial-hair prosthetics to the contrary—the carrot-colored briar patch on the real Greg’s chin wasn’t any more fashion-forward—Franco makes his second banana plausible as an outgoing, tender-hearted guy who, as if jailed by improvisers, can’t say no. Even more than Weaver; Ari Graynor as the underserved starlet; Josh Hutcherson as whatever the hell that demon man-child from The Room is; or even his brother, under a few more layers of irony and cosmetics, Franco gives the movie its spirit. His Greg is a little dim, but his bright personality gives sallow Tommy the Vitamin D needed to follow his dreams. Still, Franco glances at us for validation. He senses that unleashing this vampire might not be the right thing to do.