Aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) suffers from a lack of confidence. His new friend Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, who also directs), a flamboyant eccentric of dubious origins, does not suffer from that issue, although he is hampered by a staggering deficit of talent and a strangled accent that he insists is from New Orleans. The two decamp from San Francisco to Los Angeles to try to make it as actors, but find tinseltown a tough nut to crack. Undeterred, Tommy resolves to write and direct his own movie, a melodrama in the mould of American classics like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, a searing psychological passion play he will pour his heart and soul into.
That movie is The Room, now widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Here’s the surprising thing about The Disaster Artist: it’s not mean. The cult that has gathered around Wiseau’s inept opus is a broad church, but for a lot of people the appeal is simply mockery – The Room is a singularly terrible work, failing on every conceivable technical and creative level, and it’s fun to laugh long and loud at this kind of unaware buffoonery.
However, working from Sestero’s memoir, director and star James Franco eschews the easy path and instead makes sure that we never forget the humanity of the people we’re pointing at. These are real folks with real aspirations, even though those dreams may exceed their grasp by a very long stretch. That includes the mercurial, often bizarre Wiseau, who remains a figure of mystery to this very day (although the documentary Room Full of Spoons, suppressed by court order, has a lot to say about Wiseau’s origins). We never get inside Wiseau’s head – good lord, imagine that! – but he remains a figure who elicits sympathy if not empathy. A lot of that is down to a fantastic performance by Franco, who leans into Wiseau’s outre mannerisms and tics – how could you not? – but still never forgets to imbue him with an inner life, even if that life might be completely unknowable to anyone outside his skin. Franco’s Wiseau approaches filmmaking like he approaches the world: with unfettered confidence and a seemingly alien set of axioms and assumptions. Asked whether he will shoot on digital or film, he boldly chose both, despite the technical impossibility that implies. Spying a big shot producer in a restaurant, Tommy just starts doing Streetcar at his tableside until security intervenes. An acting teacher (Bob Odenkirk, only one of a murderers’ row of cameos) tells the lank, scarecrow-like Wiseau that his shortcut to fame is to play monsters and villains, a la Lugosi or Karloff, but in Tommy’s mind he’s the romantic hero, and the world is at fault for not seeing that. He leaves everything out on the field in pursuit of his impossible dream – can we blame him?
It’d be an absolute tragedy if it wasn’t so funny, and yes, The Disaster Artist is straight up hilarious. Faithful fans of The Room will marvel at Franco’s nigh-perfect recreations (a side-by-side comparison crops up at the end to really drive it home) but even newcomers will be hard-pressed not to hoot at the goings on, with Wiseau’s antics anchored by the wry observations of crew members played by Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer, who act as a kind of jaded Greek chorus. Dave Franco’s Sestero gets fewer laughs, but functions as the heart of the movie: a modestly talented aspiring actor like countless others, both buoyed and hamstrung by his loyalty to the weird Wiseau. Sestero’s defining characteristic is that he’s a nice guy, endlessly supportive of his friends and loyal to a fault – a trait that ultimately sees him tied to the mast of the good ship Wiseau, come hell or high water. There’s a scene where Sestero shaves off his beard that, contextually, might be the saddest thing seen on screen this year this side of Lion.
Ultimately The Disaster Artist is about a friendship, albeit a strange and arguably damaging one. The received wisdom is to double feature it with The Room, which seems obvious, but Withnail & I might be a more thematically resonant running mate, detailing as it does a similarly cockeyed relationship (we’ll allow Ed Wood as well, obvious though it might be). In focusing on the emotional dynamics rather than the chaos, The Disaster Artist has managed a truly impressive feat of metatextuality: turning what was a one note joke into something much more nuanced and moving.