The Disaster Artist, opening Friday in limited local release, pulls back the curtain on one of the most beloved, and worst, cult movies of all time: The Room. James Franco directs and stars, and he has achieved the first (and perhaps most difficult) task for a movie about a notoriously bad movie and its notoriously weird auteur, Tommy Wiseau. Franco impersonates his subject faithfully without denigrating him completely.
Wiseau is, after all, a mercurial figure. He is by all accounts wealthy beyond fathom. He is destitute of tact and style. He is unable to form standard English vowel sounds. But boy, does he love the movies. He meets Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) in an acting class in San Francisco and soon convinces him to move to L.A. with him. Together, they pinkie-swear, they'll make it big on the silver screen. A montage of auditions — one of the film's several laugh-out-loud moments — demonstrates the poverty of their acting skills and the unlikelihood of their dream.
In the face of rejection and new associations, Greg begins to see Tommy for the oddball he is. But their friendship endures, and Greg doesn't argue with — in fact, he agrees to participate in — an independent production. Wiseau writes, directs, produces, stars in and personally finances a cinematic opus.
The Room, Wiseau's white whale, was met with critical derision when it was released in 2003, immediately admitted into the pantheon of Worst Movies Ever Made. And yet it gained a cult following among the midnight-movie set. Viewers discovered that that the wildly bad acting, disjointed melodramatic plot and junior-high dialogue was something other than bad: It was funny. Indeed, it became enough of a curiosity that James Franco decided to make a movie about it, the results of which are mixed, though largely positive. Again, thankfully, The Disaster Artist does not become a relentless slamming of Wiseau, which would have been an easy, and worthless, exercise.
As evidenced by documentary testimony at the outset of Disaster Artist, the questions that fans of The Room likely want answered in a film about its genesis are: 1.) Who on earth is Tommy Wiseau? And 2.) What on earth was it like being on set?
The Disaster Artist gamely answers the second. We watch Wiseau lavishly spend on equipment and studio space, hire his cast via unorthodox methods, and treat his crew (Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer among them) with practiced disdain. When he screams at a makeup assistant to cover up a birth mark on his romantic co-star, Lisa (Ari Graynor), shouting that she must be beautiful like an American movie star, he defends his tirade to Greg by saying that Alfred Hitchcock behaved the same way. Had Greg heard of the movie The Birds?
As for the first question, viewers will be left with precious little: From whence did Wiseau emerge? What is the source of his wealth? How old is he? These are mysteries, still. And in its failure to pursue these answers, we sense in The Disaster Artist a kind of reverence for Wiseau and his horrendous artistic vision (a paradoxical respect for his privacy?) But this reverence is complicated: Even in its tender efforts to humanize, can it be anything other than a form of mockery? Wiseau's own associates certainly have no respect for him until they realize his awful film may be successful for a totally unintended reason.
But Disaster Artist deserves credit for trying to make Wiseau more than a tragic figure. As signaled by the title, it ultimately argues that even if your product is disastrous, you are an artist if you believe like hell that you are.