Movie Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ and ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Few movie experiences quite like watching “The Room”. The 2003 melodrama written, directed, produced, and starring Tommy Wiseau has become the benchmark for “so bad it’s good” movies. Watching it is like trying to watch an alien’s interpretation of human interaction, never really understanding what behavior is appropriate in a given situation or even how two people speak to one another. All of that is to say, the cheap look (think late night Cinemax), bad acting, and unusual plot developments create a picture that is unintentionally a comedic masterpiece. Over the years, “The Room” has garnered a devote cult following, leading to the mysterious Wiseau embracing the film’s peculiarities rather than being ashamed of them.

Truthfully, it’s hard to completely bash or condemn a movie that still brings this much immense joy watching it and it’s that joy that lies at the center of “The Disaster Artist”. The movie is based on a book of the same name about the making of the cult-classic and stars James Franco as Wiseau. Franco also directed the film, which is actually much more straight forward and conventional than a lot of his other pictures. You usually see the 39-year-old actor tackling off-beat Faulkner adaptations rather than audience friendly comedies. Yet, something about Wiseau’s story clearly strikes a cord with Franco. He’s not out to create a mockery of the room but rather to craft a love-letter to its obscurity.

Franco casts his younger brother, Dave, as fellow room star Greg Sestero, whose friendship with Wiseau lies at the center of the movie. You can also expect dozens of other famous faces from Seth Rogen to Zac Efron make appearances throughout the film as well. However, the real star of the show is Franco himself. His performance as Wiseau is not only the funniest thing I’ve seen in a movie all year but perhaps one of the year’s finest performances as a whole. Those who’ve seen “The Room”, or are at least familiar with Wiseau’s off-kilter personality, will be amazed at the perfection by which Franco captures him.

The movie, as a whole, uses beats audiences have likely seen before in other movies; the Hollywood underdog story, a relationship between best friends tested when one finds a girl. Even the notion of creating an ode to a so-bad-it’s-good filmmaker reminds one of Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood”.  Yet, the conventional nature of the movie might make it more accessible to audiences unfamiliar with Wiseau’s film. If anything, those who haven’t seen “The Room” will be intrigued enough to seek it out themselves. For moviegoers, this year, who feel robbed of a genuinely funny comedy, aside from maybe “Girls Trip” or the new “Thor” movie, “The Disaster Artist” easily provdies enough laughs to leave them satisfied.

Another performance out now drawing awards buzz to Franco is Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. It’s another comedy, though one that strives to be a bit more provocative and important. My only problem with the movie is that it never achieves any of those goals. In fact, it’s mostly problematic.

McDormand stars as Mildred, a mother in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, whose daughter has been raped and murdered in a fashion that would turn most stomachs. It’s been seven months since the incident happened, yet, no suspects have been named, no justice served. From Mildred’s point of view, the local police, head by Woody Harrelson’s Chief Wiloughby, are more concerned with torturing black folks than solving actual crimes. Her frustration boils to the point of purchasing three billboards, placed down a small road outside of town. What ‘s on those billboards? Let’s just say they call out the local police department and in particular Wiloughby.

Yet, Mildred’s outrage is not felt by the community at large. They urge her to stop with her stunt, especially in light of the Chief’s recent struggle with cancer. That tension boils to the point of violent outbursts, as threats don’t become enough, and characters lash out at each other in anger. It’s a movie all about the frustration individuals feel to seek out a particular brand of justice and how those crusades can sometimes spiral out of control. It’s also a movie about grief and characters struggling to work through that grief in a healthy manor.

Where the movie runs into trouble is by trying to mesh together its vulgar, dialogue based humor with all that emotional weight. Neither one is particularly unfamiliar to the work of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed this film, but it’s been welded together better in other work of his, namely 2008’s “In Bruges”. What’s different is the tragedy and pain in this film is rooted from the very beginning, it doesn’t sneak up on you the way it does in McDonagh’s first feature.

Maybe more distracting is the movie’s handling of race. As great as McDormand is, and she is great, I couldn’t help but wonder what this movie would be like if her character was someone of color. Wouldn’t the frustration between her and the local police feel more real, more provocative? There are black characters in the film but they are largely left to the side, only to be pain-points in the criticisms against the local police, namely one deputy played by Sam Rockwell, who we are told has tortured a black person before.

The movie tries to give this character a kind of redemptive arc; however, it never feels earned. We’re supposed to forgive the blatant racism and violent actions, such as throwing a town citizen out of a window, due to one well-intended deed late in the movie. One wonders if part of the problem is that McDonagh is from Ireland and doesn’t quite have a hold on the nuances of American racism. All this might sound like petty criticism but when the politics of race and police misconduct are so engraved in the story of the film, it’s hard to ignore.

 

“The Disaster Artist”: ★ ★ ★

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: ★ ★ 1/2