The Disaster Artist could’ve been a disaster. Star/director James Franco and producing partner/costar Seth Rogen have been known to self-indulge; they once spent 107 minutes and $32 million cracking inside-Hollywood jokes and battling demons. Making a movie about making a movie—a bad one at that—could’ve been the ultimate example of this crew basking in the odor of their own farts.
Thankfully, those fears were unfounded; instead, we get more evidence of the recent Franco resurgence and a lovely little story about friendship. It’s still dripping with “in the know” Hollywood banter and cameos that range from wonderful to distracting, but at least this old dog’s tricks are being used for productive purposes. Baby steps.
The movie is based on a book of the same name, written by Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero. Sestero is an actor, known primarily for his role in The Room. If you saw The Disaster Artist, you’re likely at least aware of The Room; it’s perhaps the best bad movie ever. And it’s produced, directed, and starring Tommy Wiseau, a mumble-mouthed man of mystery with extreme wealth and an indeterminate country of origin.
Franco plays Wiseau; his brother Dave plays Greg. They meet at an acting class in San Francisco and bond quickly; before long, they’re moving to Los Angeles—to an ignored apartment of Tommy’s—to pursue acting careers. Greg garners some minor wins; Tommy has zero talent. Before long, Tommy has decided that they’re going to make their own movie. And, somehow, he’s going to pay for all of it.
For the first five minutes, at least for The Room fans, Franco’s Tommy Wiseau is more distracting impression than clever embodiment. But after an initial eyebrow raise, you can’t help but settle into his stilted chuckle. And his weird mannerisms. And his unabashed commitment to all things Wiseau. It’s not hard to garner laughs with such a unique and eclectic character like Tommy; what’s hard is keeping it going for 103 minutes, not to mention injecting drama. As a director and as an actor, Franco nails it.
The comedy mostly comes from Franco’s recreations of classic The Room scenes; we see script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen) and DP Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) do battle with Tommy’s uninformed filmmaking. We cringe when Tommy insists that actress Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor) perform numerous lengthy sex scenes on an open set. And real-life stars like Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, and Nathan Fielder take on brief but memorable roles from the film, making the proceedings feel a little too winky but also nailing all the little things.
If there are any minor complaints to be had, it’s how self-aware everyone in The Disaster Artist appears to be. In reality, The Room was a mess of a set and a flop financially; it’s only after 14 years and so much word-of-mouth that it’s become a true cult classic and midnight movie phenomenon. Yet here, everyone in Tommy’s orbit is questioning how real—or sincere—this all is; everyone in the theater on premiere night is laughing hysterically, instantly understanding that it’s a comedy. It’s a bit of retconning that makes logistical sense; we don’t need to see the slow burn in action. But it does feel a little odd to anyone who knows the real story.
Nevertheless, it’s a teeny issue that will help with mass consumption. And this film deserves to be massively consumed; though Dave Franco looks like a bearded baby next to his much more imposing brother, Franco the director uses that obvious sibling dynamic—and the Tommy/Greg power hierarchy—to craft two broken souls who complete each other. As much as Franco relies on Hollywood-centric repartee, he employs its allure and mystique here for the best purpose: to illuminate just how absurd these people are.
The Disaster Artist is a labor of love; no one would adapt the story of Tommy, Greg, and The Room without adoring all of the above. But, to Franco’s credit, it’s not a love letter to Tommy’s eccentricities. It’s the story of two odd friends and their seemingly unrealistic dream come to life. It’s relatable, even if you’ve never heard of The Room. That’s the best anyone involved could’ve hoped for.