In a 2009 episode of the anti-comedy sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, creators Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim procured one of cult cinema’s most bizarre and enigmatic figures: Tommy Wiseau, the notorious writer / director / producer / star of 2003’s The Room, a now-legendary film of remarkable ineptitude.
Even in the context of something as purposely off-putting and surreal as Awesome Show, Wiseau seemed as if he was beamed in from another planet. Between his implacable accent, alien gestures and apparently delusional outlook, it’s clear why his aforementioned magnum opus became a cult fixture and also why hyper-prolific actor / director James Franco chose him as the subject of his highest-profile directorial effort to date.
The Disaster Artist, based on a book by The Room co-star Greg Sestero, details the meeting of Sestero and Wiseau (played in the film by Dave and James Franco, respectively) and how their tumultuous friendship led to the creation of an all-timer in the midnight movie pantheon: an amalgamation of overwrought melodrama and the director’s own personal demons. It’s the kind of strange that can only happen by accident.
After meeting Wiseau in an acting class and being both moved and flabbergasted by his horrifying rendition of a Marlon Brando monologue, Sestero impulsively moves to Los Angeles with Wiseau to try and make it in the business. Tommy’s lack of immediate success drives him to greenlight his own script, financing the entire production with seemingly unlimited funds, although the source of his money remains a mystery to the entire cast and crew, including Sestero.
Credit is due to James Franco as well as the screenwriters (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) for their nuanced portrayal of Wiseau. The film never dismisses him as an outright caricature, and Franco’s odd, soulful performance injects crucial scenes with real pathos. It wisely understands what makes The Room work so well is the impenetrable and mesmerizing figure at its center. This precarious balance between eccentricity and empathy is the movie’s greatest strength.
Towards the film’s conclusion, Seth Rogen’s character quips, “At this point, it would be weird if he didn’t do something weird.” Franco has always been at home playing oddballs who forge their own success on the fringes of society — be it Pineapple Express or Spring Breakers — and his Wiseau is no different. Above all else, this is the story of an outsider who, despite a staggering ego and an utter lack of competence, manages to achieve a distinct sort of prestige through sheer willpower.
Occasionally, the character’s actions seem outright monstrous, particularly on set, where his treatment of the actors and crew members often veers into cruelty. However, as detached from reality as he may be, there is real pain and insecurity permeating below the surface. Said pain is not only evident in Wiseau’s real-life masterwork but The Disaster Artist as a whole. For every time we’re asked to laugh at one of his ludicrous lies or chuckle at a glimpse into his warped perspective (I particularly enjoyed a moment when he refers to the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle as “Little Malcolm”), we’re also given a quiet moment of insight into the jealousy, self-doubt and loneliness that plague him. It’s one of the year’s best performances.
While Franco’s acting skills may be honed to near-perfection here, his skills as a director remain in need of polish. The decisions behind the camera can be best described as workmanlike, and though there’s nothing egregious here (except perhaps the bookending segments, which feel tonally out of place and unnecessary), one wonders how this material might have been elevated further if placed in the hands of, say, a Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh. Regardless, Franco at least knows the right way to approach the material: by placing the focus on its endlessly watchable antihero.
Dave Franco’s Greg Sestero is a decent enough audience surrogate, but the character inevitably gets the short shift next to his brother’s whirlwind of acting pyrotechnics. He also spends about a third of the film wearing a hugely distracting fake beard. In terms of realism, it’s right down there with Henry Cavill’s CG mustache removal in Justice League.
One question I’ve seen asked is whether or not this will appeal to those unfamiliar with The Room. Honestly, after considering it for a while, I’m not entirely sure. At the very least, it would only be beneficial for one to at least watch beforehand a compilation of The Room’s best moments on YouTube. It does occasionally feel like a love letter to that cult hit, and its fans (a category in which I include myself) are bound to be pleased by the abundant in-jokes and references scattered throughout.
I mentioned earlier that this is James Franco’s biggest brush with the mainstream as a director. In fact, after The Disaster Artist’s premiere at this year’s SXSW, much of the buzz centered around a possible Best Picture and a Best Actor nomination for the titular role. No doubt Franco deserves a nomination for his performance as Wiseau, and I find the concept of Wiseau even peripherally earning an Academy Award undeniably delicious. But the film’s direction stops The Disaster Artist from being one of the year’s absolute best. Still, for those interested in seeing a crowd-pleasing portrait of a character who, as James Thurber would say, is “inscrutable to the last,” this winter doesn’t offer anything better.