*** out of ****
(for strong language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)
Released: December 1, 2017 limited; expands December 8
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: James Franco
Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas
In the annals of the worst films ever made, The Room may very well be the masterpiece.
Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space certainly gives it a run for its money, but what both have in common are highly eccentric filmmakers. They live in our dimension but perceive it as if from another. Neither seems of this world.
Indeed, it’s fitting that Tommy Wiseau, the star and maker of The Room, would own globe-shaped tchotchkes labeled “Tommy’s Planet”, handing them out as if to stave off the obvious question “What planet are you from?”
The Disaster Artist, about the making of The Room, shares another distinction with Tim Burton’s loving tribute Ed Wood: the directors who made both biopics have a genuine affection for the peculiar filmmakers they’re exploring and the horrible movies that made them infamous. James Franco doesn’t mock Tommy Wiseau; he loves and respects him.
Franco, who directs this ode to the man behind the 2003 low budget catastrophe, plays Wiseau, an independently – and inexplicably – wealthy man from San Francisco. His drug-hazed persona (despite being narcotic free) and choppy Eastern Eurobloc accent make for a bizarre combination, as if an alien has inhabited someone’s body and is trying to affect human behavior, but with clueless confidence.
His unknown origins and endless bankroll make him even more of a mystery.
Wiseau had a specific fascination for American culture and arts, theatre and film. In the late 1990s, Wiseau and his new acting class friend Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) set out to Hollywood to make their dreams come true. For three years, their meager talents ran into a brick wall of failure.
Then in 2001, sparked by a random exasperation by Sestero, Wiseau was inspired to make a movie himself, and for them. And so he did. The final result was The Room, a corny, awkward, yet weirdly sincere melodrama that can be best described as soft core skinemax meets After School Special, in which Wiseau’s good-guy Johnny is betrayed by those close to him.
Wiseau honestly believed he was making something akin to the best of Tennessee Williams or Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, The Room has endured in a different way: as a cult classic that has played regularly in local L.A. movie houses for over a decade, at special screenings and midnight showings, complete with Rocky Horror levels of audience participation.
If you’ve seen The Room (and I have), it’s easy to see what Franco was drawn to. Once you get past the cheesy aesthetics and juvenile drama, you can’t help but see Wiseau’s passion behind it, and in it.
This wasn’t an ego trip. This was personal, as personal as any auteur’s masterwork. As one character puts it, for as odd as it may seem, this is essentially Tommy’s own story. It’s his view of how he’s tried to embrace the world, but how the world has thrown cynicism and ridicule right back at him.
Franco embodies Wiseau at method levels, not just in voice and physical affectations (although certainly those things) but psychologically and emotionally too. That’s particularly true in the conviction Franco brings to Wiseau’s paranoia; it comes from pain and rejection, not psychosis. A lesser actor, or one not in kindred spirit, would see Wiseau as crazy. Franco rightly sees someone who, while being on his own undetectable wavelength, is heartfelt and misunderstood.
In casting his brother Dave as Sestero, James isn’t falling back on nepotism; it’s a perfect choice for a friendship that becomes a brotherhood, particularly through trials and conflicts. What the Franco brothers obviously share has the right, specific chemistry needed to imbue this unique bond. Franco also peppers the ensemble with stars within his collaborative circle (like Seth Rogan) and others beyond it to make this even more entertaining.
As a director, Franco doesn’t bring near the rigor of craft that he does to his performance, but he doesn’t need to. A raw, loose docu-style fits. As a singular character study, however, and a behind-the-scenes look at how something so stupefying came to be, Franco tells a compelling, endearing story. He does so while also maintaining Wiseau’s enigmatic mystique, astutely avoiding trying to explain or expose it.
The Disaster Artist has the honesty to say that believing in yourself isn’t always enough to make your dreams come true, but it does show us that if you never give up on your dreams, the pursuit could lead to receiving a gift – and making an impact – that you never could’ve imagined. A life story that exemplifies that truth, no matter how abnormal or out of the ordinary, is a portrait worth painting, especially by the right artist. This one is, and was.
The world may have betrayed Tommy Wiseau, but James Franco didn’t.