I’ve rarely seen an audience respond to a film as raucously as I did at a recent preview screening of James Franco’s new film, The Disaster Artist. And it’s hard to blame them. This comedic account of the making of The Room by Tommy Wiseau, the most celebrated bad film to grace the silver screen since Edward D. Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space, is exceptional. Part celebration and part character study, Franco captures the essence of what has made The Room a phenomenon, whilst refusing to let the volatile Tommy Wiseau off the hook.
Tommy Wiseau is a character around whom a great deal of myth has been built since The Room was released without much fanfare back in 2003. Claiming to be originally from New Orleans but sporting a distinct eastern European accent, Wiseau amassed a significant fortune before coming to anybody’s attention. There are endless rumours about where all this money came from, but the generally accepted story is that he had some success selling jeans through his own fashion label. Adding to the mystery is Wiseau’s patently inaccurate assertion that he was born about fifteen years later than he actually was.
At some point, Wiseau came to the conclusion that he was destined to be a filmmaker, investing six million dollars of his own money into the production of The Room. Scripting the film himself, he set out to bring it to life with the assistance of his young friend Greg Sestero, making a series of seemingly mad decisions like purchasing rather renting his own camera, shooting on digital and film simultaneously for no apparent reason, and paying for a billboard in Los Angeles to promote the film for several years after its release. The resulting feature was a disaster entailing awful plotting and dialogue, and ludicrous performances (particularly from Wiseau in the lead role). But somehow, this mess worked on a blissfully ironic level and the film has become a massive cult phenomenon in the subsequent years.
It’s a huge irony that Wiseau’s impossible dreams of being recognised at the Academy Awards could feasibly be vicariously achieved through the exceptional work of James Franco on The Disaster Artist. An adaptation of Greg Sestero’s book of the same name, Franco makes Sestero the protagonist of his film, following the period leading up to the production when Sestero and Wiseau became friends, moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles together to pursue their acting dreams.
Franco is well aware that Wiseau’s often-comical eccentricities are a key attraction for fans of The Room, and much of the early part of the film is dedicated to letting Wiseau be Wiseau (also played by Franco), playing with the mannerisms that have made the man famous, and giving ample room to his largely incoherent but strangely uplifting monologues on the meaning of life and the pursuit of dreams. As the film moves into an account of the film’s production, an array of crowd-pleasing references to key scenes from the The Room are executed beautifully (although they’ll be entirely lost on those who haven’t seen Wiseau’s anti-masterpiece).
But all this would come to naught if the film didn’t provide a greater lever of depth in its exploration of the protagonist. Where the film truly excels is in its unobtrusive look at Wiseau’s darker side. It’s clearly indicated that Wiseau’s relationship with Sestero verges on being unhealthy. His attempts to thwart Sestero’s own career when it threatens to exceed his own, and his raging jealousy at the appearance of a woman in Sestero’s life, are subtly presented as indications of a monstrous streak. And latter, during the shooting of a sex scene, it becomes apparent that Wiseau is also a horrific misogynist. That all this can be covered without any sense of unevenness is a testament to James Franco’s growing skills as a director. And if there is a sense that these topics could be delved into more extensively, Wiseau’s obtuse nature and Sestero’s limited understanding of him go part of the way to excusing this gap.
If The Disaster Artist is to be praised for any one thing, it should be the standout performance by Franco in the role of Tommy Wiseau. Franco straddles the delicate balance between exploring the comic potential of Wiseau’s outrageous personality; paying respect to Wiseau’s tenacity in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles (i.e. his limited talent); and hinting at the darker elements of Wiseau’s personality. A comparison to Johnny Depp’s performance as Edward D. Wood in Ed Wood is inevitable. But unlike Depp, Franco doesn’t limit himself to idolatry, portraying Wiseau as real, complex, and ultimately unlovable.
Kudos should also be given to Franco’s brother Dave, who gives the film a sympathetic and sane centre in the role of the young and naïve Greg Sestero. And if the Sestero character’s innocence stands for sanity, then it is Seth Rogan in the role of script advisor Sandy Schklair that acts as a true point of identification for the audience. Rogan brings his usual charismatic flair to a character whose stupefied and horrified expressions at the goings-on around him remind us all that this actually happened.
All in all, The Disaster Artist is necessary viewing for anybody who has seen and managed to enjoy The Room. Functioning as both a raucous celebration of one individual’s ambitious attempt to defy the limitations of their own abilities, and as a subtle study of a troubled individual, James Franco has achieved a new level in his career as both an actor and director. If you haven’t seen The Room, make sure you do, and see The Disaster Artist as soon as you have.