The Disaster Artist (James Franco, 2017) 3½ out of 4 stars.
The Disaster Artist, in case you haven’t heard, is a movie about the making of another movie. The film in question is The Room, a 2003 drama directed by a hapless would-be Hollywood star named Tommy Wiseau and considered by some to be the worst movie ever made. While it helps to have seen the original work, the new film mostly stands on its own as a testament to the enduring power of artistic passion, however misguided. It’s also deliriously good fun.
James Franco (Hulu’s 11.22.63) directs and stars as Wiseau, with his brother Dave (Nerve) playing Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s best friend and co-star in The Room. Sestero also penned the book – of the same title – on which The Disaster Artist is based. The Franco brothers bring the same creative energy to their project that motivated Wiseau in his own endeavor. The difference is, they have talent.
When first we meet the duo, they are students in the same acting class in San Francisco in the late 1990s. Sestero, at 19 the younger of the two, is impressed with Wiseau’s commitment to craft, and soon the two are fast friends. Still, there is something undeniably odd about Wiseau, from his indeterminate age (though he claims to be the same age as Sestero), indeterminate country of origin (he claims to be from the Louisiana Bayou, yet speaks with the accent of Mitteleuropa), and indeterminate source of wealth (never explained). No matter, as Sestero seeks a way out from his humdrum life, and soon the two are on their way to Los Angeles, where Wiseau just happens to own an apartment, which he offers to share with Sestero.
A few years go by, and neither man gets much work. Well, Sestero, generically handsome, finds some gigs, but Wiseau, who, with his long, greasy black locks, pale skin and frozen, almost expressionless face, looks like a member of the undead, finds nothing. Good thing he has a seemingly bottomless reserve of cash to draw upon. But then Sestero gives him the idea to write his own script, and they’re off. Well, sort of.
What follows is one of the funniest chronicles of inept filmmaking I have ever seen. As Wiseau burns through dollars by hiring more crew than he needs and shooting the simplest of scenes – that could easily be shot on location – inside a studio, while not one, but two cameras (film and HD video) record the action, the cast ponders their nonsensical lines and motivations. All the while, Wiseau is convinced he is making a towering testament to his hopes and dreams.
This raises the question of whether such hilarity counts as unethical exploitation of another person’s misery. Given how much Wiseau has participated in the marketing of Franco’s movie, however, I think it’s safe to assume we need not worry on his behalf. If the story of The Disaster Artist is to be believed, he above all else wanted respite from loneliness, which both the cult status of The Room – however unintended – and newfound attention from the Franco brothers amply provide. Let us not feel sorry for Wiseau, then, but enjoy the telling of his perverse achievement of success through failure.
Beyond the two male leads, both perfect in their parts, the rest of the ensemble is a joy to watch. There’s Seth Rogen (Neighbors) as a cynical script supervisor; Ari Graynor (CBS’ short-lived Bad Teacher) as the put-upon female lead of The Room; Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) as that lead’s mother; and Alison Brie (The Little Hours) as Sister’s girlfriend, baffled by the two men’s co-dependent relationship. There are many others. All are good.
I had the great joy of watching The Disaster Artist at an advance screening in a small theater, filled with aficionados of Wiseau’s film. The audience laughed at every single joke, clearly enjoying the spectacle, as was I. Nevertheless, their contagious mirth did give me slight pause: if one knew or cared nothing about Wiseau’s tortured feature, how would this play? If context is everything (and it is), then what happens to the humor and profundity of this without such context? I feel confident that the film has resonance, regardless, but it’s that slight doubt that reduces my overall rating to just below perfection, despite the otherwise solid construction. But rest assured, fans of The Room: this movie is for you.