It is a relative rarity to see one film that depends so much on another, yet is neither sequel nor prequel, nor even a documentary or reboot (hard or soft). The Disaster Artist is James Franco’s ode to the titanically awful The Room, and that movie’s maverick central figure, Tommy Wiseau. This new film charts the journey of Greg Sestero, struggling actor and Wiseau-collaborator, as he meets and falls under the spell of this mysterious and inexplicable character.
James Franco takes on the role of Wiseau himself, and Greg is portrayed by the younger Franco brother, Dave. Their impersonations are contrasting – even to those who have seen The Room, Sestero’s mannerisms are deliciously forgettable. Dave Franco could just as easily be playing himself, and we would be none the wiser, decent though the performance actually is.
James, by contrast, has clearly studied his (supposed) friend Wiseau, and summons the man’s bizarre twitches, slurring and vocal improbabilities with care and impressive accuracy. It is an unerring imitation, almost distractingly so – an issue ultimately averted by its very specificity. Tommy Wiseau really is just that weird, and an element of constant surprise and bemusement for viewers is a fitting tribute.
The film follows the conception and realisation of The Room, through that process’s minor ups and repeated, major downs. Greg and Tommy meet and quickly formulate a plan to move to Los Angeles and fully commit to their actorly ambitions. This change is funded by one of Wiseau’s many idiosyncrasies – his seemingly bottomless and ambiguously-sourced wealth. Their arrival in LA initially goes the way of so many others, with absentee agents and failed auditions; it’s to the film’s credit and that of screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber that these moments encourage empathy and not scorn.
Greg and Tommy eventually agree that the only way they will star in a motion picture is if they create said picture themselves, and so Tommy writes The Room in a frenzy. Like one of the many chimps in the proverbial room whose typewritten output is straightforwardly muddled, his script is dire. Nonetheless, they press on and hire comparatively competent professionals to help them. Filming is an ordeal for all involved, but The Disaster Artist‘s charming outlook again shines through, showing us exasperated and at times furious technicians who eventually submit to their incredulity and laugh at this absurd experience.
Even more obliging are the actors involved – subject to grim conditions and near-abuse by this mysterious creep, yet generally grateful to also be living a dream they believed far-fetched. The experience of being in a major film is shown to be one to cherish, even when it is semi-falsified. Franco clearly has affection not just for Wiseau but for those who worked with him, and who accompanied him on the bizarre journey that was The Room – more widely the film seems aimed as testament to friendship and loyalty, worthy ambitions.
The Disaster Artist is similarly creditable; it is well-meaning, and amusing with relative consistency. Moreover, the story it tells is intensely interesting and befuddling. Its limited narrative ambition is a limitation it never overcomes, though. As a directorial debut this indicates promise from James Franco, but he will not be able to rely on a beloved true story every time he steps behind the camera.