Among its accomplishments, The Disaster Artist manages to reconcile the two sides of James Franco, the enervating M.F.A. cliché and the winsome comic actor. An account of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s legendary The Room, the film allows Franco to channel all of his metatextual proclivities into an accessible narrative. That the film Franco spoofs is one of the most beloved cult classics of all time, inspiring fans to dress up, bring props, and catcall the screen when attending any of the regular screenings around the country, primes The Disaster Artist to become a cult object in its own right.
Taking a page from Wiseau’s own multi-hyphenate ambitions, Franco directs and stars in the film, first lumbering into frame in monstrous fashion, back to the camera and face obscured by an unkempt mane of thick, greasy black hair. Tommy appears at an acting class attended by aspiring thespian Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a handsome 19-year-old whose professed ambitions run afoul of his intense stage fright. When Tommy gets on stage after a mumbling rehearsal by Greg, he reads the “Stella!” monologue from A Streetcar Named Desire, though that’s a generous assessment of his performance. Merely shouting “Stella!” over and over, Tommy devotes his energies to moaning and thrashing like a stuck pig, humping the air and climbing sets in what is, from a warped point of view, a surprisingly pure approximation of the hothouse nature of Tennessee Williams’s play. The rest of the class giggles and looks away from the display, but Greg is transfixed, and he soon approaches Tommy to learn how to act so unguardedly and fearlessly as him.
Dave Franco plays Greg as Tommy’s first and oldest fan, reacting to the man with a combination of bewilderment and affection. Greg finds himself drawn ever deeper into Tommy’s air of mystery, stymied by all attempts to ascertain his age, birthplace, and the source of his seemingly bottomless wealth. Greg’s friendship with Tommy is a contentious one, filled with obvious fondness but often tinged with hints of jealousy because of how Greg, despite struggling to land even bit parts, swiftly snags an agent, Iris Burton (Sharon Stone), and then a girlfriend, Amber (Alison Brie). Tommy, of course, never gets anything out of auditions besides the terrified, placating smiles of casting directors who regard him like a bear that’s wandered into the room and hope won’t notice them as they gently urge it back out through the door.
Franco nails Wiseau’s slurred, drawn-out manner of speaking and body language, the fundamental strangeness of his aura—the way that Wiseau’s face always seems to remain slack and his heavy-lidded eyes droop sleepily even when conveying the most volcanic of emotions. Franco even uncannily expresses how Tommy’s mirthless laughter has the feeling of punctuation, a means of desperately capping off a thought or line of conversation.
The specificity of Franco’s performance carries over to the exacting recreation of The Room shoot. Franco’s film dives into the insane folly of Tommy’s passion project, how he buys, not rents, all of his shooting equipment, incurring massive costs for no other reason than to look like a big shot, or how he has a fake alleyway constructed to look exactly like the one outside the shooting stage. A portrait of Tommy as buffoon and tyrant emerges: He regularly harasses cast and crew to respect his vision while bombing dozens upon dozens of takes. In The Disaster Artist’s centerpiece scene is the making of The Room’s “Oh, Hi Mark” scene, and Franco captures, by way of Tommy’s hapless frustration on the set, what was, by all accounts, a nightmare scenario. The entire production grounds to a halt as Tommy reads, over and over again, three lines of dialogue, and when he finally succeeds, if it can even be described as such, it’s difficult for us not to share the crew’s elation.
While The Disaster Artist perfectly communicates the surreal hell of what the original production of The Room must have been like, it’s less successful at examining Tommy and Greg’s friendship. In his accounts of the production, Sestero has described at length the curious, inexorable pull that Wiseau had on him from the moment that they met. For the sake of narrative expediency, the ups and downs of their long-standing, tumultuous friendship have been smoothed out, and as such an aspect of what informs The Room’s unique appeal has been lost. Nonetheless, The Disaster Artist remains a loving tribute to Wiseau’s creation, because sneakily hidden in the perfectionism of its recreations is the earnest belief that sometimes bad movies can leave as lasting an impression as the good ones, if not more so.