The unique appeal of “The Room”—a disorienting and stilted tale of lust, betrayal, and emotionally charged games of tuxedo football—is best described as “if somebody made a David Lynch film completely by accident.” Director Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 self-financed labor of love is almost mesmerizingly watchable, a parade of ill-advised cinematic left turns: Pointless philosophical conversations between leads Johnny (Wiseau) and his best friend-turned-surfer-dude-personal-Judas Mark (Greg Sestero) on an obviously fake apartment complex rooftop punctuated by bizarre subplots that come and go without payoff and an excruciating marathon of the most cringe-inducing sex scenes imaginable outside of late night Cinemax.
Given its cinematic half-life—on the fringe of public consciousness as a staple of Friday night college dorm room viewings and midnight movie screenings—it feels inevitable that somebody would adapt Sestero’s hilarious memoir, 2013’s “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made,” documenting his decades-long friendship with Wiseau and the making of “The Room” from script to screen. That the “somebody” to do it is one-time Academy Award nominee/occasional celebrity nuisance James Franco, who both directs, produces, and stars as Wiseau, is a little more surreal.
“The Disaster Artist” could have easily been a very by-the-numbers biopic in another life and the script from screenwriter duo Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter (“The Spectacular Now,” “Pink Panther 2”) certainly dips into its fair share of “based on a true story” cliches. For one, we probably didn’t need a scene where a minor character all but looks directly at the camera to explain that Tommy’s script shows how he feels victimized by the world.
Thankfully, the actual film is suitably weird and intriguing in its choices. Franco, a talented leading man usually resigned to charming scumbags, disappears into the role of the mumbling, sulking Wiseau in a way that is at times eerie. Franco threads the needle gracefully, keeping his performance funny without delving into a cruel impression as he delivers heavily accented lines—Tommy’s obviously from somewhere in Europe but claims to be an American from New Orleans or “newwarrlins” —and steps into the director’s signature baggy cargo pants. The profound humanity Franco gives the director is easily “The Disaster Artist’s” biggest saving grace, refusing to shy away from Wiseau’s casual abuse of both Sestero and his film crew but zeroing in on a lonely outsider’s desperate need for approval from a cosmically indifferent Hollywood.
When an aggressively overeager Wiseau is dressed down by a big shot movie producer (a cameoing Judd Apatow) after interrupting his dinner at an expensive restaurant, your heart breaks with him: You know from the second the stardom-hungry Wiseau sees his shot that no one on the L.A. celebrity food chain is going to tolerate his schtick and he’ll walk away utterly humiliated. Wiseau may be just another aggrieved rich white guy mad at the world for not giving him what he feels entitled to, but you find yourself admiring his clueless fearlessness, whether he’s dancing like a jackass at a nightclub or demanding that an alley scene be shot on an obviously fake set instead of an actual nearby alley.
“The Disaster Artist” wisely grounds itself in the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero, played by Franco’s brother Dave Franco. The younger Franco is not only a talented actor in his own right (see last year’s slept-on 15 minutes in the future thriller “Nerve”) but the decision to cast actual brothers as Wiseau and Sestero gives their messy, odd friendship a crucial lived-in dimension, from their awkward first meeting in a San Francisco acting workshop to the seemingly endless limo ride to the premiere of “The Room.”
Franco’s film nails the rough edges of Wiseau’s bizarre pseudo-mentorship of the much younger Sestero, like his intensely guarded privacy about his wealth and ethnic background or his abrupt invitation to share a previously unmentioned one bedroom apartment with him in Los Angeles. As the traditionally handsome Sestero finds some small semblance of success with bit part TV auditions and a bartender girlfriend, Franco’s Wiseau lashes out at his self-appointed protégé for finding the success that he knows will always be out of reach for someone who looks him.
This back and forth—the earnestly grateful but embarrassed Sestero shouldering more and more of Wiseau’s verbal barbs and public outbursts—is the emotional center of “The Disaster Artist” as they go from friends to filmmakers. Their emotional foosball game finally hits a breaking point as Wiseau callously forces Sestero choose between their movie and a potentially career-making guest spot on “Malcolm in the Middle,” Wiseau’s cruelty punctuated by his mocking insistence that the show is called “Little Malcolm.” The resulting extreme close up on Sestero as a crewperson shaves off the beard he needs to book the “Malcolm” gig is a quietly devastating little moment in a film that’s largely a comedy. Wiseau’s slow but steady alienation of the only person who truly believes in him, seemingly the first person to reach out and embrace him for who he is, is the mini-tragedy of the heart of “The Disaster Artist.”
“The Disaster Artist” feels less like an attempt at biographical realism and more like a streamlined creation myth for “The Room.” The aforementioned fateful “Malcolm” gig or Wiseau’s revelatory viewing of “Rebel Without A Cause” that serves as the inspiration for “The Room’s” famous “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” line are obviously fabricated or exaggerated, but they give the proceedings a larger-than-life weight.
Notably, “The Disaster Artist” is full of bit parts and cameos from everyone from Hannibal Burress and Bryan Cranston (here playing himself circa 2002) to Sharon Stone and all three comedian hosts of the “How Did This Get Made?” bad movie podcast. On paper, this would be distracting; but in practice, the sea of recognizable celebrities playing nobodies act as a kind of Hollywood Greek chorus to the tragedy that is the making of “The Room”—a constant on-screen reminder of the traditional fame that eludes Wiseau and Sestero. That one-hit wonders like Corona’s ‘The Rhythm of the Night’ and Rick Astley’s immortal ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ are heavily featured on the soundtrack also feels significant in a film about making peace with celebrity infamy.
Hard-fought blood, sweat, and tears success stories showcasing the indomitable human spirit in the face of adversity are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, so it’s fitting that “The Disaster Artist” is an ode to the undeniably American story of a strange, aggressively unpleasant man failing so badly at his corny dream that he falls ass backwards into his own kind of fame.