There are few American filmmakers that have been as prolific as James Franco in recent years, but his latest feature is no film school project or experimental adaptation. With The Disaster Artist, Franco’s filmic fascinations align with mainstream appeal, and it’s his most notable directorial effort to date.
The Disaster Artist tells the story of one of the most memorable “bad” movies in cinema history, 2003’s The Room. Franco’s brother, Dave, plays Greg Sestero, a budding young actor living in San Francisco. When fellow wannabe Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) offers him the chance to move to Los Angeles, Greg joins him for the journey south. However, Tinseltown is hard on them — even Greg’s all-American good looks don’t get him very far. So, they decide to take their stardom into their own hands. Tommy writes a screenplay, The Room, which they will produce themselves, courtesy of Tommy’s inexplicably endless checkbook.
One of the primary joys of the film is watching the elder Franco’s performance as the enigmatic writer-director. Wiseau has become such an iconic figure for cinephiles, and much of Franco’s work here is vibrant impersonation. The all-important unplaceable accent is accurate, as is the memorable laugh. It’s a thoroughly entertaining performance, and it’s also the source for much of the film’s humor.
Despite having a cast loaded with comedic character actors (Paul Scheer, Megan Mullally, Hannibal Buress etc.), The Disaster Artist doesn’t feel like a comedy. Instead, it functions as a drama about a funny subject. This results in humor that feels natural, without the forced gag rate required of conventional comedies. Instead, the hilarity derives from surreal (supposedly close to reality) moments.
Franco seems uninterested in exposing Wiseau’s bizarre self-created myth, and the disaster artist leaves the film as much of an enigma as he enters it, maybe even more so. Instead, it’s Greg who acts as the film’s focalizer, in line with the source material the writers (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) turned to for the inside scoop: Sestero’s tell-all book about the making of The Room.
Though the film never gets into his head, The Disaster Artist paints Wiseau as a tragic, and ultimately sympathetic, figure. Franco’s affection (for the film and for Tommy) is clear and he avoids poking fun at every turn. Instead, he turns this bizarre story into a moving tale of friendship and creativity. The film is an innocent love song to the movies and all its crazy quirks. The Hollywood dream lives on proudly in The Disaster Artist.
Neustadter and Weber’s adaptation is snappy and the film moves along nicely as a result. It is, however, told quite conventionally — a far cry from some of Franco’s more audacious directorial efforts. The simplicity doesn’t in any way match the unique cinematic experience of The Room, though it does have the effect of enhancing the odd nature of a movie inside a movie.
Tommy and Greg’s incessant talk about stardom could come across as vapid, but, as that dream fades and a new one forms, it becomes clear that The Disaster Artist isn’t about being a star — it’s about being yourself. “This my movie and this my life,” Franco’s Wiseau finally confesses. No film will ever capture the confounding magic of The Room, or its creator, quite as well as the genuine article, but The Disaster Artist will no doubt help you love it.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.