The selling point of James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” is, of course, its connection to the now legendary cult film “The Room.” Based on the memoir by “Room” star Greg Sestero, “The Disaster Artist” recounts the making of “The Room” (a film that’s so bad it transcends awfulness and becomes entertaining) and the mysterious European auteur who made it: Tommy Wiseau. However, at its core, “The Disaster Artist” is an affectionate bromance about two struggling artists and a surprisingly earnest comedy about chasing your dreams. It’s also very, very funny. Tommy Wiseau is the weird, inspirational best friend we all need.
Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor living in San Francisco. At an acting class he encounters the bizarre but captivating Wiseau, (James Franco, complete with long pitch-black hair and a boney, pale face) as he horribly reenacts the famous “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Wiseau shrieks at the top of his lungs, rolls around on the stage like a child and even climbs up one of the rafters. Most people would be immediately embarrassed but Sestero sees confidence, a confidence he’s lacking. He asks to be Wiseau’s scene partner afterwards and their friendship begins.
In this first half, “The Disaster Artist” carefully develops Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship, focusing on their early bonding moments (a road trip to James Dean’s crash site, for example). The picture is a moving and humorous account of their struggles as artists and the ways they motivate each other to succeed. It isn’t until about the halfway point that “The Room” is even mentioned and even then their friendship is kept front and center.
Most of the humor in “The Disaster Artist” comes from Franco’s clownish but respectful rendering of Wiseau. We’re invited to laugh at Wiseau’s stoned, broken English demeanor (he acts as though he’s in a perpetual state of intoxication even though he doesn’t do drugs) and numerous eccentricities (he consumes Red Bulls like water). Often times, Franco’s delivery of a mundane line of dialogue or goofy pronunciation of a word is all it takes for us to keel over in laughter.
However, the portrayal is never too derogatory. Wiseau is tragic and overflowing with sympathy. He’s lonely and erratic; his rash mood swings and awkward means of social interaction are off putting to just about everyone except Sestero. His unfamiliarity with American culture, combined with his delusional desire to be an American dramatic actor like Brando or a Hollywood auteur like Hitchcock can make him unreasonable and irrational. On the other hand, he has an air of charisma and geniality. He can be extremely warm and affectionate. And his hunger and determination for artistic success is both infectious and relatable.
It’s a well-rounded, human performance and Franco immerses us in Wiseau’s peculiar, absurd world without spoiling the mystery surrounding him. There’s a lot we don’t know about Wiseau in real life, like his real age or where he came from, and movie doesn’t attempt to speculate on these enigmas.
When we finally get to the “The Room,” “The Disaster Artist” transforms into pure comedic bliss. It’s a breezy and nutty behind the scenes look at how some of the worst scenes in cinematic history came to be. Recognizable actors, including Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, Jackie Weaver and Zac Efron briefly show up in delightfully unassuming supporting roles as various members of the production. It’s a hell of an ensemble, used perfectly. As great as the bromance angle is, I feel like I could have also watched an entire film just about the making of “The Room.” Better yet, if the cast of “The Disaster Artist” wanted to make a shot by shot remake of “The Room,” I wouldn’t be mad.
“The Disaster Artist” is consistently funny, character driven and, at ninety-eight minutes, isn’t longer than it needs to be. It can’t replace the surreal and exhilarating experience of watching “The Room” (nothing can) but Franco’s film makes for a fun companion piece and is easily the funniest movie I’ve seen this year.