- Franco as Wiseau in the film-within-a-film.
The Disaster Artist is a film about a film, a bad one at that—The Room, the cult hit from 2003 that has become a hipster totem of irony over the past 14 years, with makeshift cinemas worldwide charging a few bucks for the apparent joy of collectively mocking someone’s heartfelt, yet terrible, art. (It’s essentially a soft-core porn.) To watch The Room in public, on purpose, is not a Rocky Horror experience, it’s not It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas—shit, it isn’t even sing-along Frozen. It’s a mean-spirited, poorly intentioned endeavour, the worst of internet culture.
Now James Franco—pause for a deep breath, or a sedative—has directed a version of this story, casting himself as Tommy Wiseau, a man who has rather impressively cultivated a persona of mystery. He’s rich, confusingly accented (he keeps saying he’s from New Orleans, but it’s a tapestry of European quirks), of indeterminate age. And he wants to be a famous actor. He meets Greg (Good Franco, AKA Dave) in San Francisco and they move to LA to make it. The standard series of Hollywood rejections follows, so Tommy writes The Room—about “a real American hero named Johnny”—for them to star in.
The bulk of the film follows the making of the movie, a two-month stretch fully staffed with Hollywood professionals, paid for by an eccentric who has no idea what he’s doing in any of the jobs he’s created for himself. James Franco, who while being completely irritating has always been totally self-aware, could’ve pitched Tommy as a caricature, someone to be laughed at. Instead he doesn’t try to guess at the root of Wiseau’s issues—a passing mention of a car accident may be the key—and when Greg gets a girlfriend (Alison Brie, Dave’s wife) he turns sour and abusive on set, no longer just a vampiric weirdo with oddly impeccable comic timing, but a deeply damaged man. You get the sense Greg’s been his only friend for a long time, and Franco manages to telegraph real human emotion through his cartoonishly stringy hair and lazy eye.
Every part in The Disaster Artist is perfectly cast, from Ari Graynor and Nathan Fielder as The Room’s Lisa and Peter, to Megan Mullally as Greg's mom, to Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith as Hollywood broads; even Zac Efron pops up for two scenes, Channing Tatum-like. Minus an out-of-step documentary-style opening in which Franco’s famous comedy friends like Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan talk about seeing The Room for the first time—this conceit never comes back—The Disaster Artist is, like Franco himself, an ultimately affecting depiction of ambition and artistic bravery. It's like a B-version of La La Land, except nobody here is going to Paris.
If you’re a fan of The Room experience—and there are enough of you for Wiseau to have turned a profit on this allegedly $6 million production—you owe it to the film and its maker to honour his journey. If you’re not a fan—hi—there are still many riches to be mined in this story of big heart, outsized dreams and silver linings, which will surprise you at exactly the moment you think you've got it figured out.