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Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a Tennessee Williams-like melodrama that was seemingly created by a wounded, misogynist alien, isn’t just a notoriously bad movie, it is widely regarded as the best bad movie ever made. In large part this is down to the air of mystery and sheer oddness surrounding Wiseau himself. The writer/director/star is a man of indeterminate age and national origin, dressed like a vampiric bodybuilder, playing the all American character of Johnny. Throughout, characters give nonsensical reactions, subplots are introduced and then forgotten and it is never even clear what the ‘room’ of the title refers to. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist dramatises the story behind the making of this bizarro flop and how it turned into an accidental and enduring cult hit.
Opening with a montage of interviews featuring various Hollywood faces talking about their obsession with The Room, this may initially feel like a patronising pat on the head from the folks that have made it in Hollywood. Look at this little alien who made a movie. He thinks he’s people. However, once the film proper begins we are launched into an earnest story about friendship and the push/pull of self belief and self doubt. Dave Franco plays Greg Sestero; a wannabe actor who is pulled into Wiseau’s orbit. Like the audience he’s drawn by Wiseau’s enigmatic persona but their friendship is, more than anything, about the fact that these guys are the only ones to believe in each other. The initial scenes of them bonding over their dream of making it big might seem delusional but are played so sweetly that it’s hopelessly endearing.
Once the pair make the move to LA their friendship comes under strain before Wiseau uses his seemingly bottomless bank account (we never learn where he gets his money) to finance a self made opus. It’s then that the real fun begins as more and more people are hired to join an absurd man on his absurd passion project.
Surrounded by an amazing supporting cast of comedic actors, it’s the shoot itself that provides both the most laughs and the most honest look at a project that was so misconceived as to be a hypnotic spectacle. The hare brained plot and choices clearly all mean something to Wiseau, unreasonable as he is, and co-star Sestero (now played by the younger Franco in a distractingly awful fake beard) has to act as a calming arbiter between his friend and the crew, the other actors and basic logic. Seth Rogen, as the script supervisor, may have one too many ‘but this is crazy’ type asides but, on balance, it is hilarious to watch rational humans grapple with an auteur that is not only inept but also near unknowable.
James Franco’s leading performance captures Wiseau’s distinct, eccentric style and mannerisms in a way that might feel to some like a loving impression but how else to portray someone so distinctive? Beneath it all he manages to mine some humanity from his source material (this is a real achievement). Wiseau is a perpetual outsider, a weirdo who is tired of being laughed at. He is domineering and often petty, even horrible, but it’s hard not to feel for the guy even while guffawing at the sheer improbability of him. His art means everything to him. Dave Franco’s portrayal of Sestero (whose autobiographical book this is all based on) is that of a timid, wide eyed, nice guy. They bounce off each other throughout and the balance between the two leads centres the film amid all the madness.
Wiseau’s script centered on betrayal and The Disaster Artist portrays him as someone with a paranoid martyr complex. The ultimate stab in the back comes when he expects his moment of triumph – the premiere. He’s bared his soul and everyone in attendance is pissing themselves laughing at it. He looks as bewildered and hurt as Carrie on prom night. For a film that’s genuinely interested in the question of ‘was it worth it?’ The Disaster Artist rushes, in its final moments, to tie things up with a neat answer. Sure, we are treated to many details of the production but get very little of Wiseau coming to terms with how his masterpiece was then viewed.
Easy answers aside, James Franco has taken the accidental, baffling comedy of The Room and made one of the funniest films of the year. This is a perfect companion piece to the source material; one that will make you want to watch it all over again. The Disaster Artist is a loving tribute to a unique man who stumbled his way into making something that will be remembered long after more critically acclaimed films are forgotten, just not for the reasons he hoped.