Director: James Franco
Stars: James Franco, Alison Brie, Dave Franco
“I did not hit her. It’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did not. Oh hi Mark.”
For some the above stream of nonsense will appear as exactly that and have no relevance. For others (disclosure: myself wholeheartedly included) these words act as a key to all manner of sense-memories of encountering Tommy Wiseau’s improbable feature film, The Room. A cult movie of the highest order (the director a figure akin to a modern-day Ed Wood), it’s a film that exists and perpetuates through word-of-mouth and midnight screenings, which its creators have whole-heartedly embraced.
It’s that or crumble under the awfulness of their creation. As bad movies go, it runs the gamut. Part of what keeps it enduring is the on-and-off-screen friendship of Tommy Wiseau and his co-star/ line producer Greg Sestero. Sestero wrote the book on their unlikely adventure in filmmaking, and how fitting that another patron of the Hollywood weird has picked it up for this adaptation.
James Franco is something of an outsider or anomaly within the industry; a professor, actor, writer, director and star who powers through projects like there’s no tomorrow. His otherness often stems from his seemingly conflicting sensibilities; one minute he’s trying to fashion rigorous art, the next he’s indulging juvenile antics with his own long-term buddy Seth Rogen.
Rogen appears here as put-upon script supervisor Sandy, but The Disaster Artist exhibits collaboration on many fronts. Chiefly in front of the camera as Franco takes on the task of bringing Wiseau to life while his brother Dave inhabits Greg Sestero. Dave has an odd task himself; how is it to play a bad actor? In this he is amiable enough to get us along for the ride, but it is James’ Wiseau that constantly delights and fascinates.
As impersonations go, it’s dead on, so much so that – as the movie progresses – you start to feel like he even looks more and more like his subject. Wiseau himself is something of an enigma, keeping his age, place of birth and financial status shrouded. The Disaster Artist plays up to this mystique. There are no answers here, but the mystery of the man is lovingly enshrined; clearly the Francos and Rogen are big fans.
And they’re not alone. The movie opens with a succession of celebrities (from Kristen Bell to Kevin Smith) talking with hushed wonder about The Room, and it would be easy for this movie to become little more than an inside joke; a love letter to obscurity that closes doors on all but the most ardent fans, but it plays things more wisely. The Disaster Artist can be approached cold as a quirky trivia piece, but it also works as a charming ode to creative reach.
When Wiseau finishes the movie and it is met with derisive laughter, he becomes upset, and the viewer is forced to confront the meanness of revelling in snark; a position easily taken in the age of the meme. Franco manages to humanise the absurd. But it is Dave’s Sestero who goes to his long-haired director and shows him how to spin this ‘failure’. It’s a moment of beautiful friendship. Sestero has come to know his friend, knows how his ego works, and knows how to salvage the situation, allowing Wiseau to save face.
Whether The Room turned out good or bad is almost secondary to the examination of a bond forged via a mutual dream. The Disaster Artist makes sly digs at Hollywood for luring the susceptible into its dark web, but it also celebrates creative friendships (there are some glad-handing cameos scattered throughout) and idolises the strangeness of movie-making; the improbability of it all.
Another great collaboration here comes from screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, who walk a delicate line. It’d be easy to merely mock Wiseau (and for sure his oddness is here through and through), but there are touches of bruised fragility to him that enable the film to rise above. And then there is James Franco’s method embodiment of the man. He’s a force of nature here.
All of which makes The Disaster Artist… great. As advised, I’m a huge fan of The Room, having attended multiple screenings and even organised one or two on a smaller scale. I’ve acted as spoon-wench, even (don’t know? don’t ask). As such coming at this review without bias, with level-headed objectivity is trickier than usual. If you’re reading this as a fan to learn if justice has been done, the answer is absolutely. If you’re an outsider looking in I’d encourage this walk into the weird. Good movies, bad movies, they’re all made from hard work. Nobody makes anything worth remembering or celebrating without putting themselves into it. Franco’s film acknowledges this, and is probably his best because of it.