‘The Disaster Artist’ Is A Triumph Of Non-Literal Adaptation

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber had a monster of a task in trying to adapt Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book, The Disaster Artist. The book, which is wonderful (you can read my interviews with Sestero here) is many-layered and with multiple chronologies, at once Sestero’s memoir of navigating the Hollywood machine as a 19-year-old model/actor, the bizarre behind-the-scenes saga of The Room, and the Searching For Sugar Man-esque mystery of who the hell Tommy Wiseau really is, where he came from, and where he got all his money. (Wiseau famously claims to be from New Orleans in his thick French-Slavic accent, never gives his real age, and spent an estimated $6 million on The Room.)

For the movie version, Neustadter, Weber, and director James Franco make a firm choice not to attempt to cover it all. A movie is a different creature than a book (especially so with this kind of mix of memoir, reportage, and oral history), so firm choices are crucial. It was the right one, too. Countless adaptations have been undone by the curse of too much material. They either focus on all the wrong plot points, like Unbroken, or try to squeeze in everything, like The Lost City of Z, and end up feeling like a rote recitation of bullet points instead of a yarn.

The Disaster Artist takes a big-picture view. The filmmakers clearly didn’t just figure out their favorite scenes from the book and try to pack them all in. It feels like they asked themselves hard questions about what the foundation of this narrative really is and built up from there, staying efficient with what they include and unsentimental about what they leave out. In this case, the foundation is Greg Sestero’s life-changing, strangely edifying relationship with this bizarre, jealous, tyrannical yet strangely sympathetic human vampire Tommy Wiseau (played by James Franco).

The film version barely scratches the surface of Wiseau’s real-life bizarre behavior, from his tendency to torment, stiff, and lecture service staff to his obsession with “big e-motion,” but it nails the important stuff. Namely, what Greg (Dave Franco) sees in Tommy. That’s the obvious question, right? Why would anyone be friends with this guy? The Disaster Artist communicates this in just two short scenes, both winningly broad. The first is Greg’s first encounter with Tommy at their acting class in San Francisco. Greg is stiff, a young kid terrified of humiliation — and humiliation is, unfortunately, the root of acting. His smoky acting teacher, meanwhile, played by Melanie Griffiths (another character who barely scratches the surface of what’s in the book, but gets right to the root of it almost immediately) tells him “Do you want to be an actor? You sure don’t act like it.”

Then it’s Tommy’s turn. He violates every tenet of acting, making zero eye contact with his partner or the audience, mumble-screaming incomprehensible lines in his impenetrable accent before throwing chairs against the wall and climbing the lighting rig like a monkey. Big emotion! He barely seems human, but the one thing he doesn’t do is worry about humiliating himself. The next thing you know, Tommy and Greg are scene partners, preparing for a dialogue at a diner in Walnut Creek, where Greg’s afraid to practice his lines too loudly to avoid annoying the other patrons. You know, healthy levels of shame kind of stuff. Tommy, ever demanding, beseeches him to “forget these people, you want to be actor, right?” and the next thing you know they’re doing impromptu dinner theater. Like most things in The Disaster Artist, it’s big, but it gets right to the point, and it’s the right point. Tommy: he’s terrible, but he might be the kind of terrible Greg needs.

The Disaster Artist is correct in ways that are ineffable, rather than literal. On paper, neither James nor Dave Franco are right for these parts. They’re only seven years apart, where the real Greg and Tommy are at least 15. No matter how much make-up he wears, a guy as handsome as James Franco could never do justice to the real, jacked gargoyle-like Tommy. Conversely, cute as he is, Dave doesn’t have the same fine featured, fluffy haired, Abercrombie model looks that gave Greg Sestero a comparatively easy time when he got to Hollywood, and that’s also central to the Greg-Tommy dynamic. But a story like this isn’t about literal truths, it’s about emotional truth, and there’s something unspoken in the Francos’ brotherly bond that feels like a correct analog for Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. The appeal is fourth wall breaking and relies partly on subtext, just like a cult movie does. As Michael Rousselet, one of the founding fathers of The Room cult likes to say, The Room‘s conflict is its struggle to be a movie, and you end up rooting for it.

Likewise, James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau isn’t a gesture-for-gesture imitation, which is both a smart and a bold choice for someone as easily and commonly imitated as Tommy Wiseau (though Franco is pretty decent at Wiseau’s hunch-shouldered gait and mumbly speech). Instead, he focuses on the tangle of conflicting emotions that make Tommy what he is — jealousy, marginalization, thwarted ambition, traumatic childhood, repressed desire, exhibitionism. There’s no elegant way for the movie to do what the book does, to explore Tommy as a teen and young adult, the refugee and constant foreigner. But Franco somehow gives us hints at Tommy’s strangeness, his permanent outsider pathos, and repressed misogyny.

And like almost every making-of movie, the predictable moments are weirdly pleasing. You don’t have to see Straight Outta Compton to know there’s going to be that scene where Eazy-E nails “Cruisin’ down the street in my six four…” for the first time, but the utter predictability of it doesn’t make me like it any less. Watching Tommy Wiseau say “Oh hi, Mark” has the same effect. Is it simple ‘member berries? It’s cheap and I kind of hate myself for it, but still I love it, which feels deeply human.

In a way, you can watch The Disaster Artist and have a blast the entire time and come out feeling like you barely saw anything at all. It’s a winning romp that’s light as a feather. Its emotional depths aren’t fully explored, but comedy doesn’t have to be exhaustive. It’s like great junk food, mostly sugar and empty calories, but with just enough subtle complexity that you want to keep eating. It’s not the book, and that’s a big part of what makes it work. It’s a separate entity that stands on its own; that’s what a good adaptation should be.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.