If you’ve never heard of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, I’d love to know how this is possible. Chances are, it’s playing near you sometime soon; midnight showings happen in my city on a bi-monthly basis. It’s not called the ‘Citizen Kane of bad movies’ for nothing. In telling its tragic tale of lovers Johnny and Lisa, it abandons all notions of continuity, human behaviour, set design, lighting, appropriate musical accompaniment, and pretty much everything else we all take for granted at the movies. Hearing someone describe it can’t even begin to give you an idea of what it’s like to sit down and actually watch it. Clearly a passion project, and clearly created with love and care, it is an honest and sincere disaster on every conceivable filmmaking level. And it’s glorious. It really must be seen to be believed.
You don’t need to have seen The Room before watching The Disaster Artist, but it’ll mean more if you do. Dave Franco plays Greg Sestero, a young, aspiring actor in San Francisco with no prospects. Monotonously performing a scene from Waiting for Godot in class one day, his acting coach chides him for being boring. ‘If you’re going to act, you need to give something of yourself,’ she says. ‘Is there anyone here who can show themselves to the class?’
Boy, is there ever. From the back a volunteer emerges. A towering, mildly vampiric figure with shoulder-length, oily hair. He’s much, much older than anyone else in the class, but it’s impossible to gauge his exact age. He takes the stage, and in an unidentifiable Eastern European accent says, ‘Stella!’ Then, he screams it. He throws a chair across the stage, and his body too; he climbs scaffolding only to hurl himself off. He emotes in ways unrecognisably alien. And his complete lack of self-consciousness impresses the shit out of Greg.
This man is Tommy Wiseau, played to eerie perfection by director James Franco. Calling him an enigma would be an understatement. He specifically tells Greg not to ask about his money, or his past. Though he seems to have no discernible job, he has an apartment in a nice area. When he and Greg discover that they’d both really like to make it as Serious Hollywood Actors, Tommy suggests moving to Los Angeles. Greg would love to, but there’s no way he can afford it. Well, Tommy can. In fact, he already has an apartment there that he never uses. Seeing nothing left for them in Frisco, the pair move to make it big.
Greg gets an agent right away, but both men struggle. Tommy’s line readings in auditions don’t exactly ring true; in fact, they don’t really read as human. Frustrated with his lack of progress, Greg wishes he could simply make a movie and cast himself in the role. (Like those Good Will Hunting guys!) Tommy’s eyes flicker. Why not make their own movie? He, apparently, has a few million dollars lying around for just such a rainy day. And thus begins production on The Ultimate So-Bad-It’s-Good Midnight Flick.
If The Disaster Artist disappointed me slightly, it’s only because the film nerd in me wanted more of the actual making of The Room. These passages are the most interesting, and I personally could have watched hours of just those scenes. Franco, perhaps wisely, understands that not everyone is fascinated by the minutiae of film craft, so doesn’t overplay his hand. (But after the film, he does grant us the enchanting pleasure of watching scenes from The Room side-by-side with his own recreations. This will surely beguile fans, and provide non-initiates with some welcome context.)
Though James Franco is (as yet) no great cinematic stylist, he directs The Disaster Artist with a gentle, yet confident hand. There’s humour inherent in these situations, but he never pushes for a laugh—he earns them honestly. It helps that Franco directs with a heavy dose of empathy for everyone involved. He never pokes fun at Wiseau for the way he acts, or at the actors stuck fulfilling his vision (as in the horrid doc Casting Jon Benet from earlier this year). Franco’s love for these people is obvious. This is, at heart, a disarmingly good-natured film.
James Franco’s performance is a magical alchemy of imitation, homage, and humanity. Given what we see of Wiseau’s acting in The Room, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Franco to descend into a flimsy, farcical parody of Wiseau’s mannerisms. But there’s a real man underneath the indefinable accent and barren gaze. Franco’s transformation is total; he dissolves into this character. It’s at once the best and most mesmeric role of his entire career. That he directed himself to this performance seems miraculous.
And in the performances he draws from everyone else, there’s not a single sour note. His brother Dave finds the right combination of guileless and driven, so Greg’s slow realisation that his buddy’s film may be less than a masterpiece rings poignantly true. Everyone tasked with bringing the cast of The Room to light—among them Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Nathan Fielder, Jacki Weaver, and several more I’ll let you discover—seems to be having a delightful time, which is infectious.
Tommy Wiseau wanted to make a film that allowed him to bare his soul. When people laughed at it, it nearly broke him. What James Franco’s The Disaster Artist shows is that, even though The Room didn’t have the effect Wiseau wanted, people continue to react to the film with genuine love and affection. Wiseau’s choice to laugh with his audiences was liberating, and assured his place in the annals of cinema history. The Disaster Artist is probably the best tribute The Room could’ve hoped for.
Cinephile ProTip™: Don’t you dare leave when the credits start to roll!