Civilisations gone by had their own ways of marking the passing of time and we have ours. You can always tell the year is coming to a close, for instance, when there is another Star Wars film on the horizon that isn’t being screened to critics until after the Christmas issue of the New Statesman has gone to print. (Stop by the website any time from 12 December to discover whether The Last Jedi is as good as Rogue One or a snooze like The Force Awakens.) Distributors know better than to release their prime product around a Star Wars movie, which is why this can be a good time for more eccentric fare. Two new releases, both concerning renegade directors whose enthusiasm outstrips their skill set, fit into that category.
The Disaster Artist is a straight-arrow biopic of a wayward talent: the actor-producer-director Tommy Wiseau, the nearest thing cinema has to a William McGonagall or Florence Foster Jenkins. He’s the man responsible for, or guilty of, The Room, which is generally considered the world’s worst movie, at least now that no one talks any more about Plan 9 from Outer Space, Frankenhooker or early-1990s Kenneth Branagh.
Truly bad cinema, like its opposite, is born of sincerity and vision. And Tommy is not short of those qualities, as proved by The Room, a high-intensity drama full of non-sequiturs, robotic acting and tonal shifts as smooth as handbrake turns. James Franco, who directs The Disaster Artist, plays him in all his dented glory: Pete Burns tresses, his disposition to the darker side of Richard III, one eye scrunched, the other squinting. Tommy sustained facial injuries in a mysterious car crash – indeed, everything about him is mysterious, from his birthplace to the provenance of the fortune that enabled him to fund The Room to the tune of $5m – and his vocal cords might have been involved in a pile-up too. Always either slurring or caterwauling, he gets by mostly without consonants. Subtitles would spoil the fun.
Tommy begins as a struggling actor, admired by his classmate Greg (Franco’s puppyish kid brother, Dave) but scorned by the industry. A casting director (Bob Odenkirk) remarks on his “malevolent presence”. A producer (played by Judd Apatow) tells him he’ll never make it: “Not in a million years.” Ever the optimist, Tommy ponders this for a second. “But after that?” he asks.
He comes close to throwing in the towel. “Maybe I don’t have what it takes,” he says, or rather: “Mayah dough hah wah i’ tay.” But then Greg suggests he should direct his own movie, and the film gets its eureka moment. Like other comedies about deluded directors (the fictional Bowfinger, the factual Ed Wood), The Disaster Artist has transparent affection for the all-hands-on-deck camaraderie that can redeem even the wobbliest production. The actor Carolyn (Jacki Weaver) is surprised to find that her character’s breast cancer diagnosis is mentioned in one scene and then never referred to again, but it’s clear why she’s happy in The Room: “Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else.”
The cinematographer (Seth Rogen) isn’t so sure. “The best thing I can say about this is that no one will ever see it,” he gripes. Pop culture has proved him wrong. The Room still plays all over the world as a midnight-movie perennial complete with Rocky Horror-esque audience participation. It has even recouped its costs.
Whether The Disaster Artist will enjoy the same success is another matter. It’s entertaining, if framed and cut a touch manically. Franco the director doesn’t always give Franco the actor the space for his Peter Sellers-like performance to breathe, and some of the tastiest gags fail to land – Tommy building an alleyway set that’s identical in every detail to an actual alley not 20 metres away, or erecting a billboard in Hollywood advertising The Room, complete with “RSVP” and his home phone number.
Medium or wide shots and longer takes, in the style of Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson, might have made the film a bone-dry delight. Franco imposes on the material a more middle-of-the-road sensibility instead. Whatever your feelings about The Room, Tommy would never have settled for that.
There’s another pleasantly deranged actor-producer-director in The Prince of Nothingwood, a documentary about Salim Shaheen, the jovial former military general who has made 110 films in Afghanistan in the past 30 years, undeterred by falling bombs and non-existent budgets. Needing fake blood for a battle, Shaheen slits a chicken’s throat. Disenchanted with his son’s camcorder photography, he persuades the documentary’s own cinematographer to shoot some scenes for his latest kitsch action spectacular with his far superior camera. Shaheen, a Dom DeLuise lookalike who grew up on Bollywood and infuses his work with the same madcap, mix-and-match spirit, is an unorthodox action star, bulging out of tight, patterned blazers and turtlenecks. His directing style could possibly be subtler. “Act better than that!” he bellows, mid-take.
Sonia Kronlund, a veteran of reporting in Afghanistan, believes he embodies “a sort of resistance” and her gently amused picture supports this view. Shaheen’s screenwriter wears shades indoors, though he’s no cool-cat rock-star type: his eyes were damaged when a rocket fell on the set in the middle of shooting. The fans are every bit as resilient. One man explains that he borrowed a television set to watch Shaheen’s film Qais the Tea-Seller, only the Taliban smashed the TV and flogged him. His solution? He went out and borrowed a second. Shaheen himself shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, he has an idea for a new action film featuring a villain who breeds goats to fight one another. I kid you not.
It takes a perverse kind of filmmaker to turn the pulpy, real-life story of “Hollywood poker princess” Molly Bloom into a tedious, self-satisfied slog but Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and now the writer-director of Molly’s Game, is that man. He pinches stylistic tricks from Casino to show how Molly (Jessica Chastain) went from Olympic skier under the harsh tutelage of her father (Kevin Costner) to organising multi-million-dollar poker games involving movie stars and Russian gangsters, before defying the Mafia, getting busted by the FBI and joining forces with a hotshot attorney (Idris Elba).
Few screenwriters are quite so in love with their own prose as Sorkin; on and on it goes, faster than the speed of screwball but with none of the wit. (“I was in a hole so deep I could go fracking,” is about as good as it gets.) Molly’s Game is his directing debut but he’s a dead loss, serving up more than two hours of interminable poker games, smart-alec voiceover and insufferable blowhards trying and failing to crack wise in a succession of anonymous rooms. The film would be improved no end by the Wiseau touch or the Shaheen sparkle. Fetch me a chicken!
“The Disaster Artist” (15) is out now. “The Prince of Nothingwood” (15) is released on 15 December and “Molly’s Game” (15) on 1 January 2018
Ryan Gilbey’s films of 2017
dir: Kleber Mendonça Filho
The indomitable Sônia Braga is a writer battling unscrupulous property developers in this stunningly rich Brazilian drama.
dir: Paul Verhoeven
Isabelle Huppert turns a rape-revenge thriller into subversive, stimulating black comedy.
dir: Peter Mackie Burns
Funny, searching portrait of a feisty but troubled gal-about-town, played by Emily Beecham.
The Work (15)
dir: Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous
Group therapy involving prisoners and the public gets results in an acute documentary.
Personal Shopper (15)
dir: Olivier Assayas
Bizarre fashionista ghost story starring Kristen Stewart. Alienation by Chanel.
Call Me by Your Name (15)
dir: Luca Guadagnino
The “things-were-never-the-same-after-that-summer” genre will never be the same after this rapturous film.
dir: Barry Jenkins
Sorry, La La Land. The Best Picture Oscar went to… this gay, African-American coming-of-age story.
Manchester by the Sea (15)
dir: Kenneth Lonergan
Casey Affleck plays a grieving janitor in a harrowing study of loss.
The Other Side of Hope (12A)
dir: Aki Kaurismäki
Finnish absurdist director delivers compassionate cinematic balm in trying times.
dir: Nacho Vigalondo
Anne Hathaway stars in a brilliant, high-risk mash-up of romcom and monster movie.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special