- A24 Films
The 2003 drama The Room has been alternately celebrated and reviled as one of the worst movies ever made—and I'll just have to take everyone's word for that. Unlike many who find a perverse fascination in spectacular awfulness, I've never carved out time for the cinematic equivalent of someone saying, "Ugh, this sour milk is disgusting—here, smell it." And allow me to assure those of you who are similarly The Room virgins that The Disaster Artist requires no such background to be delightful.
That might seem counter-intuitive, because in one sense The Disaster Artist is built on a grand act of impersonation. James Franco—who also directed—stars as Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic writer/director/star of The Room whose vaguely Eastern European accent, cascade of rock-star hair and apparent obliviousness to his complete lack of dramatic talent make him a fascinating figure. All it takes is watching a few clips of Wiseau on YouTube to get a sense of how Franco has embodied the sheer alienness of this guy beyond his fractured syntax and heavy-lidded self-confidence. But if you're not so familiar with Wiseau's rhythms that Franco's performance seems uncanny, can the movie work?
The fact that The Disaster Artist does transcend its potential simply to be a remarkable simulacrum comes down to a savvy structural decision by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, adapting the memoir by Greg Sestero. Like Ed Wood and Bowfinger—two other comedies about determined but delusional film auteurs—The Disaster Artist is mostly a buddy movie built around a relationship between two oddballs who need each other. Dave Franco plays Sestero, who is a 19-year-old wannabe actor in San Francisco circa 1998 when he meets Wiseau in an acting class. The scene is one of the movie's most hilarious bits—the uptight Sestero watching dumbstruck as Wiseau shrieks his way through the "Stella!" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire while literally climbing the set—but it also sets the stage for the nature of the central relationship. Sestero admires Wiseau's complete commitment, even to looking ridiculous; the solitary Wiseau seems happy just to know that somebody believes in him.
Casting the Franco brothers could have felt like a stunt, but instead, The Disaster Artist gets a lot of mileage out of the inherent chemistry between them. Dave falls naturally into a deferential younger-brother role, as Wiseau becomes not just Sestero's friend, but also his patron as he finances their mutual move to Los Angeles to pursue their acting dreams. And it's also important that Dave provides a grounded counterpoint to James' showier performance, serving as an audience surrogate for the idea that, sure, Wiseau is weird, but maybe he's an admirable kind of weird.
It all builds, of course, to centering much of the movie's second half around the production of The Room in 2002, and the set pieces here are truly inspired. From the seemingly endless number of takes Wiseau requires to remember a single breathless, ridiculous string of lines—that Wiseau himself wrote—to Wiseau's insistence on making himself the centerpiece of a sex scene, The Disaster Artist serves as a wonderful chronicle of someone with an undeniable vision. The notion that this vision is jaw-droppingly misguided never even occurs to him.
It becomes a tricky balancing act for James Franco to maintain the deliberate mystery around Wiseau, while also making him recognizably human and sympathetic when people laugh in his face. The key scenes are effective—whether it's an awkward attempt to meet Judd Apatow in a restaurant, or Wiseau's reaction to the unintended laughter at The Room's premiere—but the focus is so much on Wiseau's bizarre behavior that it's not always easy to see a real person underneath it all.
Yet there's still a charm to celebrating The Room as a sheer act of will, albeit one backed by Wiseau's mysteriously bottomless bank account. When the credits roll with side-by-side comparisons of scenes from The Room and James Franco's own version of those scenes, it feels like an unnecessary sop to The Room's cult of fans who might be impressed by the duplication. Even if you've never seen The Room before, it's clear that The Disaster Artist is best not at emphasizing re-creation, but honoring a work that was like absolutely nothing else.