Autodidactic multi-hyphenate James Franco has directed a startling number of feature films. Most of them are…okay. He’s shown potential, but while none of his films are truly terrible, even the best aren’t much more than middling. Instead of cranking out four or five mediocre literary adaptations a year, I’ve argued I’d like to see him focus on making one really good movie. And though his pace doesn’t appear to have waned one iota, with The Disaster Artist, Franco may have made his first great film.
The Disaster Artist, based on the memoir of actor Greg Sestero, tells the behind-the-scenes story of The Room, the latest greatest cult “worst movie of all time” phenomenon. Much like Rocky Horror, audiences flock to midnight shows of the 2003 disaster-piece and participate in ritual acts, including throwing spoons, mid-screening.
Franco’s film tracks maniac fringe wingnut Tommy Wiseau, played by the director, as he follows his dream to become a Hollywood star, strikes up a close friendship with Sestero (Dave Franco), and mounts the unlikeliest movie production you’ve ever imagined.
Part of what makes The Room so fascinating, beyond the apparent complete ineptitude on the part of everyone involved in the production, is Wiseau himself. Stone-faced and fueled by boundless ego, he’s a bizarre outsider who, to this day, purposely shrouds himself in mystery. He’s a being of near-myth, a kind of Tinseltown urban legend who created a movie out of sheer will and deep pockets—though the source of his finances also remains largely cryptic.
And James Franco, wearing heavy prosthetics, nails the man. He has every stilted move, every awkward enunciation down pat and inhabits Tommy like a second skin in a strange, off-kilter bravura performance. Much like his directorial output, he’s often shown glimmers of greatness as an actor, though his career has been wildly up and down. But playing Tommy Wiseau, he finally feels whole.
Based on an outlandish true story populated by off-the-wall characters, The Disaster Artist could easily have become a raucous oddity, much like The Room itself. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly is raucous and odd and non-stop hilarious. But it’s also moving and heartfelt and heartbreaking. At it’s core, the film is about the relationship between Tommy and Greg and two friends chasing their dreams. Strained and strange, external pressures test their bond and drag them over the coals, and through it all, their connection rings authentic and true. It’s this emotional core than gives The Disaster Artist depth and makes it more than another crazy story to gawk at.
Because James Franco is one of those Hollywood types, everyone you see is someone you’ve seen before. Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Paul Sheer, Nathan Fielder, and countless others have minor parts. Zac Efron and Alison Brie have small roles, and Josh Hutcherson’s wig is award-worthy on its own. But even characters who show up and have a single line will ring bells in the audience.
At times, The Disaster Artist leans too heavily on the fan-service angle. For The Room devotees, all of the high points are represented and recreated here. (“Oh hi, doggee,” “Oh hi, Mark,” “I did not hit her, I did naaahhhht,” “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”) Still, it’s an oddball love letter to movies, a fascinating crowd-pleaser, and a surprisingly sweet story of passion and friendship. [Grade: B+]