Is it possible to make a good movie about a bad one? How about if you’re James Franco? The answer to both questions, it seems, is yes. With The Disaster Artist, Franco succeeds in telling a consistently entertaining — and, perhaps, illuminating — story about the making of The Room (2003), the best worst movie of the 21st century.
An obvious touchpoint, for the audience if not the filmmaker, is Ed Wood (1994), Tim Burton’s touchingly strange homage to the man behind Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton argues that to make movies like Wood’s, you’d have to be utterly sincere about your God-given mission as a filmmaker.
Wood, however, made many films. Tommy Wiseau made only one, despite the fact that he’s now turned a profit on a movie with the outrageous budget — given what’s onscreen — of $6 million. The Room did not meet with the reception he hoped for, according to a memoir by his costar Greg Sestero that became the basis for The Disaster Artist.
Franco both directs and stars as Wiseau, in a performance that feels like the ultimate party trick and also works because…well, because Tommy Wiseau is who he is. His completely off-kilter but weirdly confident affect is key to the fascination of The Room, and his many personal appearances have made clear that if it’s an act, it’s one he’s been doing for a long time.
The screenplay, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, strikes a fine balance. The film has sympathy for Wiseau, but doesn’t delve too deeply into his psychology. He appears before us like he appeared to Sestero: an inexplicable apparition, of completely indeterminate age and national origin. This becomes a running joke, as does the mysterious source of the personal wealth he used to finance The Room.
With Franco’s brother Dave Franco playing Sestero, the film’s first act depicts the frustrations Wiseau encountered in trying to launch a conventional career in Hollywood. He swears he doesn’t have an accent and thinks he’s an all-American leading man type, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. Finally, with Sestero’s encouragement, he sets out to make his own movie — a story that, the actors surmise, dramatizes his sense that the world has betrayed him.
When it finally becomes time to roll cameras, the audience gets what it really came for: a dramatization of what it might have been like to be on the set of a film that’s so bad, it’s become a subject of fascination. Crossing their fingers and taking their paychecks (which they can’t believe actually go through), the cast and crew try to soldier through as the writer/director/producer/star shows up late, forgets his lines, and throws tantrums.
What makes The Room so addictively watchable is that it functions, on the surface, like an ordinary mediocre romantic thriller — but exists in a fun-house alternate reality where actors are replaced, lines don’t connect, plot threads are dropped (“I definitely have breast cancer”), and Wiseau himself looms as an almost otherworldly presence, unable to deliver a single line in a naturalistic fashion.
Franco extends that demeanor into the world outside The Room, and the film has a lot of fun with scenes like Wiseau doing Tennessee Williams (he just yells “Stella!” and literally climbs the walls), hitting the floor at a dance club, and meeting Sestero’s disbelieving girlfriend (Alison Brie). The film is understandably sympathetic to Sestero, who was first intrigued by the bizarre Wiseau’s confidence, then tempted by his financial means, and finally repelled by his hostility.
The Disaster Artist is full of celebrity cameos, which works because it serves to constantly remind us that this infamously awful film turned its stars into genuine pop-culture celebrities. Seth Rogen strikes the right bemused note as the film’s script supervisor, and Josh Hutcherson is wincingly optimistic as Philip Haldiman, playing the indefinable role of Danny.
Before the credits roll, we see several films from The Room paired with their recreations from The Disaster Artist — a self-satisfied exercise, yes, but one that also reminds us exactly how bizarre Wiseau’s American epic is. You’ll want to go home and watch it after seeing The Disaster Artist, which is as much praise as either Tommy Wiseau or James Franco needs.