Concepts like “good” and “bad” cannot describe The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 romantic drama that would eventually become a cult classic. The Room exists outside the neat confines of qualitative discussion: It is anti-art, with scenes and dialogue so inexplicable and funny that they boggle everyone’s collective understanding of human nature. Wiseau also stars in the film, and his bizarre persona only adds to the film’s mystique. In The Disaster Artist, a comedy about Wiseau and his friend/muse Greg Sestero, director James Franco could have easily made a mean-spirited film. One of its many charms, however, is how Franco treats Wiseau with genuine affection.
Sestero and the journalist Tom Bissell co-wrote the book The Disaster Artist, a behind-the-scenes insight into the making of The Room, so it follows that the film keeps the story from Greg’s point-of-view. James’ brother Dave Franco plays Greg with a mix of charm and goofy, wide-eyed innocence. We first see Greg in an acting class, wooden and stiff, while Tommy (James Franco) is downright liberated. He screams Stanley Kowalski’s lines from A Streetcar Named Desire, writhing on the stage, seemingly indifferent about whether his Brando impression makes any sense.
Tommy and Greg become fast friends, and together they leave San Francisco for Los Angeles, sharing the dream that they make it in show business. Something is off about Tommy, though—he will not tell Greg where he is from, despite a thick Eastern European accent (he claims to be from New Orleans)—and yet Tommy has enough confidence for both of them.
There is little sense that Dave and James are actual brothers, mainly because James gives a pitch-perfect impression of Wiseau. Anyone who has seen The Room will appreciate his dedication to all of Wiseau’s tics. Dave gives a more traditional performance, and accomplishes something trickier: He makes us believe that Greg would go along with, and sometimes defend, Tommy’s erratic decisions.
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wisely spend plenty of time alone with Greg and Tommy, so when they get to making The Room, the dynamics between the two leads and the crew are sharply defined. Seth Rogen appears as a script supervisor, leading to an agonizing, hilarious sequence where Tommy flubs the same line dozens of times. In the frequent downtime between takes, Franco sneaks in shrewd asides so we can get a sense of how the crew allowed The Room to end up the way it did.
The Disaster Artist can be a typical “behind the scenes” film like Ed Wood or The Player, with the added complication of Wiseau’s unjustified ego and failed attempts at Hollywood glitz. Wiseau uses expensive green screens for no discernible reason, and the film’s big sex scene looks like ’90s-era Cinemax (we see way too much of Franco’s hairy ass). Between oddly specific mise-en-scène and the quasi-romance between Greg and Tommy, gently suggested and rarely acknowledged, The Disaster Artist uses convention to only deepen The Room’s pervasive quirks.
Another crucial choice is Franco’s decision to never explain Tommy or his background. There are many pet theories—one of the most compelling is how The Room is a laundering scheme for the mob—but his friendship to Greg is the only anchor we are given. The unlikely pair do not have chemistry, exactly, and instead their relationship is borne out of a need that neither could probably articulate. There are some subplots, including Greg’s budding romance with Amber (Alison Brie), and yet they are all in service of Greg and Tommy’s cinematic baby. The script takes some liberties with The Room’s premiere, but they are well-chosen, allowing its heroes to transition from anonymous outsiders to beloved outsiders.
The Disaster Artist may be a tough sell for novices to The Room. If you have never gone to a midnight screening or watched among friends, there are many little references you’ll miss. Still, as the end credits begin, Franco offers a side-by-side comparison of his version and Wiseau’s original film. His mimicry is downright impressive, with every detail syncing perfectly, and recognizable comic actors filling in the bit parts. The Room is not a universal film, but The Disaster Artist strives for genuine commonality.
Wiseau might as well be from a different dimension, but what he wants—success, respect, recognition—makes him more like us than we might care to admit. Given his own failed attempts at becoming an auteur, it is all too perfect that James Franco finally finds his muse, successfully humanizing one of cinema’s few genuine eccentrics.
The Disaster Artist opens Friday at Regal Gallery Place and Arclight Bethesda.