Isn’t it better to fail spectacularly than to never try at all? Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 magnum opus, The Room — an accidental cult classic once dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” — was the hard-won sum of his Hollywood dreams; it was also possibly the best worst thing to happen to cinema since Ed Wood picked up a camera. And it feels only appropriate that James Franco, an actor and director for whom weirdness is next to godliness, would be the one to tell his story.
Nothing about Wiseau’s biography is clear. In 1998, the year The Disaster Artist begins, he claimed to be in his 20s and from New Orleans; if either was true, it would be a miracle. As Franco plays him in lank hair, veneers, and a prosthetic bridge to thicken his movie-star nose, he’s a sort of loopy enigma, a sun-walking vampire whose vowels are as muddled as his mysterious past. But the ageless kook who dresses like a freelance magician and talks like a Transylvanian valley girl does have two things going for him: a bank account and a belief in himself, both seemingly bottomless. And for a while at least, he also shares a genuine if unlikely friendship with an aspiring actor named Greg Sestero (whose 2013 memoir the film is based on). Played by Franco’s own younger brother Dave, Greg is a nice guy who never knows quite what to make of Tommy but is struck by his utter willingness to live in the moment: delivering Brando monologues via what looks like a full-body seizure; shouting out Shakespeare in 24-hour diners; leading a spontaneous midnight pilgrimage to James Dean’s final crash site. (Dean as a recurring motif feels like its own kind of meta wink from Franco, who gained his first major notice and a Golden Globe for portraying the legend on screen in 2001.)
Together the pair set out for Los Angeles, where Tommy inexplicably keeps a second apartment — “Mah pied-à-terre” — and Greg swiftly lands an agent, if not any actual jobs. The industry’s indifference turns out to be a white-elephant gift in disguise, spurring Tommy to write his own script and set the making of The Room in motion. It’s also apparently a chance for Franco the director to enlist everyone he’s ever met at an awards show or after-party. No role is too small for his parade of stars, many of whom speak no more than a few lines: Zac Efron, Sharon Stone, Bryan Cranston, Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow, Megan Mullally, Melanie Griffith, Josh Hutcherson. (Seth Rogen, as an acerbic script supervisor, and Alison Brie and Ari Graynor, as a long-suffering girlfriend and starlet, respectively, earn more-sustained arcs.) Still, the story belongs to the two Francos: Dave as straight man Greg, whose slow retreat from his increasingly volatile friend drives him further into self-destruction (and whose copper-penny shag is the movie’s only truly unforgivable wig), and James as would-be auteur Tommy. Though the latter can’t help leaning into his muse’s mush-mouthed absurdities, he gets at the pathos, too — the rage and hurt of a man truly baffled by the rules of the world he finds himself living in. As an artist, Wiseau was a disaster. But what a mess he made. B+