Those familiar with Tommy Wiseau’s infamous 2003 vanity project The Room will have some idea what they’re getting into with star and director James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. But those with only a passing awareness of the source material will find themselves at no significant disadvantage here, as Franco and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have crafted a heartfelt love letter to one of the worst films ever made that will appeal to neophytes and veterans of The Room screenings alike. While the temptation to wait for this one to hit streaming services might be strong — especially with Star Wars: The Last Jedi hitting screens this week — The Disaster Artist is a film, much like The Room itself, that needs to be experienced with an enthusiastic audience.
Part of the enduring allure of The Room is the enigma at its core, the mysterious Tommy Wiseau. Based loosely on the book written by Wiseau collaborator Greg Sestero, played here by Dave Franco, The Disaster Artist refrains from probing too deeply into the unanswered questions surrounding Wiseau, reveling instead of the fundamental weirdness of his creations — both The Room and his own persona. Who cares where Tommy’s money came from or how old he is when you can watch him flip out when it’s suggested that his bare ass might actually be detrimental to his film?
Both Francos lend a sense of joy to their performances as Wiseau and Sestero, suggesting that this film probably started life as an opportunity to exorcise James Franco’s propensity to quote lines from The Room in Wiseau’s vaguely Eastern European patois. While The Disaster Artist occasionally skirts the uncomfortable line of mocking its subject, the duo seem to harbor a genuine affinity for Wiseau and his magnum opus. This sense of sincere affection keeps the film from ever becoming mean-spirited, and the inherently comedic potential of the story is allowed to shine unencumbered by any sort of speculative theorizing or narrative navel-gazing.
As a director, Franco has always been a bit too workmanlike for my tastes — and The Disaster Artist is no exception. Extraneous structural conceits such as an opening sequence of talking head interviews wherein comedians attempt to explain the perpetual appeal of The Room add little to the proceedings, and a parade of celebrity cameos distractingly overshadows the otherworldly atmosphere of “Tommy’s Planet.” But even if his first two acts are front-loaded with expository detritus, Franco’s third act delivers on its promise to shed some light on the inner workings of a madman, and the results are at once hilarious and relatable.
If there’s one drawback of Franco-as-Wiseau, it’s that the star is just a little too pretty and charismatic to do justice to Wiseau’s baseline creepiness. The Disaster Artist is a self-reflexive Möbius strip of a film — a movie both about and defined by performance, a picture occasionally awkward in its construction in order to comment on one of the most poorly constructed pieces of cinema in history. It may lack the level of professionalism of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, but it lacks none of that film’s empathy and love for its central character. We may never get to the bottom of the mystery of Tommy Wiseau, but that was never the point — this is not a film concerned with value judgments, but one dedicated to celebrating the joy of engaging with art, no matter how awful that art might be. Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande.