Many dreadful films have managed to wind up in the public domain over the course of the past century but few have managed to penetrate the public psyche in quite the same way as Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 disasterpiece The Room. Once proclaimed ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies’ the longevity of the film is by virtue of it having joined that league of greats to be proclaimed ‘so bad, it’s good’. Now, James Franco directs, writes and stars in The Disaster Artist, an ode to awfulness and tribute to misguided dreams.
Based on The Room actor Greg Sestero’s memoir, The Disaster Artist gifts a behind the scenes peak into the film’s origins and peculiar production process. Franco plays Wiseau, a legend of such individuality that were he a fictional character he would be deemed far fetched and likely from the mind of Sacha Baron Cohen. Part and parcel with the man is the fact that next to nothing is known about him – least of all: where he’s from, where his bottomless pot of money comes from and how old he is. Sestero (played by James’ older brother Dave) is, in this regard, our surrogate.
It is through Greg that we meet Tommy and through his eyes that we are introduced to his quirks. The younger Franco is sensational here, displaying both a perfect imitation of Wiseau and nailing the comic beats of his script. It’s a full bodied performance and succeeds largely because Franco so willingly throws himself at it, whilst never losing sight of crucial empathy. Amid all the fun, a challenge is raised by the film over the morality of laughing at another’s dreams and deriding their failures; it’s an uncomfortable effect and could easily have left a bitter taste. Largely due to the tangible level of affection for both Wiseau and his film that runs throughout, this is not the case.
Sestero first met Wiseau in 1998, at a San Francisco acting school, when he was a nervous, stiff wannabe (‘You’re like a wounded puppy’ his teacher tells him) in awe of his friend-to-be’s unwavering confidence. The film opens with Greg dying on stage in Beckett, before Tommy launches into an unforgettable performance of A Streetcar Named Desire that channels Marlon Brando, Ozzy Osbourne and King Kong, all in one fell swoop. Asking Tommy to help him come out of his shell and learn to be fearless, Greg soon finds himself embarking on an unlikely bromance and hot footing it to LA to become stars, on a pinky-promise pact to ‘always believe in each other’. It is when this proves fruitless – ‘Just because you want it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen’ – that an idea blossoms: why not just make their own Hollywood hit?
Whilst The Disaster Artist is essentially a one and a half man show, it’s a feature that boasts a remarkable supporting cast, in largely small roles. Kristen Bell, Adam Scott and J. J. Abrams all cameo within the first thirty seconds, whilst Seth Rogan, Zoey Deutch, Zac Efron and even Sharon Stone pick up parts along the way. All, presumably, fans of The Room and recruited out of odd devotion. It being Rogan’s company who snapped up the rights to the film back in 2014, he produces here too. As director, Franco’s fairly by the book, opting for a slightly episodic approach and loading his soundtrack and scenography with near-contemporary references, but it matters little when everything else is spot on. This is his best work in some time.
Whether this will work entirely for those unfamiliar with The Room is hard to say but a good time is guaranteed for all. Whilst a good portion of the runtime is devoted to callbacks and lovingly recreated scenes, there’s a universality to the nature of the story that transcends any sense of this being a members only club. In a handful of subtle ways, The Disaster Artist is, to its credit, not really about The Room at all but instead every bit the tale of hopes and dreams as La La Land. ‘You have to be the best you can be,’ says Wiseau, ‘and never give up’ – especially when you live in Doolally La Land.