I vividly remember when word began to spread, in the loose community of movie and culture bloggers of which I was then a part, about the 2003 cult phenomenon The Room, a self-produced and self-distributed movie that was the vanity project of an enigmatic figure by the name of Tommy Wiseau. When I say “vanity project,” I mean it in the most comprehensive sense: Wiseau, a total novice to the world of film production, was the movie’s writer, director, producer, and star, and he paid for the whole project out of his own mysteriously deep pocket. Nobody knew—nor is it known with certainty to this day—where Wiseau came from, how old he was, or how he managed to finance a project whose final budget reportedly ran to about $6 million. This figure was the result of such senseless cost overruns as Wiseau’s choice to buy rather than rent his cameras and lighting equipment and to shoot every scene both on 35 mm film and digital video, not to mention his propensity for showing up hours late to his own set every day. The chaotic shoot ran weeks over schedule, none of the actors understood what the story was about, and by the time the movie wrapped, the cast and crew were fed up with the unpredictable whims of their bizarre and tyrannical director.
The resulting film was, in the words of Wiseau’s friend and co-star Greg Sestero—who later co-wrote (with journalist Tom Bissell) a spellbindingly funny memoir about the shoot—“majestically odd.” It’s impossible to do full justice to The Room with the meager tools of written language. The thing must be seen, in all its discontinuous, non sequitur–crammed glory, to be believed. But though no cinephile’s life would be complete without a viewing of The Room—an experience one early reviewer compared to “getting stabbed in the head”—there’s no need to have seen it in order to enjoy The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s hilarious and big-hearted adaptation of Sestero’s memoir, starring Franco himself as the eccentric maestro and his brother Dave Franco as Sestero, a Sancho Panza–style sidekick to Wiseau’s grandiose Quixote.
The Disaster Artist is part buddy movie, part show-business fable, and part behind-the-scenes DVD featurette. With meticulous accuracy, Franco reproduces the bonkers filming conditions Sestero describes in his book: the construction of obviously fake alley and rooftop sets when perfectly good real alleys and rooftops were sitting right there. Wiseau’s perverse insistence on filming The Room’s cringe-fully explicit sex scenes on an open set, his own bare ass front and center in the frame. The speech that had to be reshot so many times (because Wiseau had trouble hitting his mark and remembering his lines) that by the last take the entire cast and crew could recite the nonsensical lines in unison.
It’s the making-of scenes in The Disaster Artist that bring the biggest laughs, but it’s what comes before the Room shoot that makes that laughter something deeper and richer than mere mockery. Tommy and Greg’s friendship begins at an acting class in San Francisco and eventually sends them on a pilgrimage to the site of James Dean’s fatal car crash and later, to L.A., where they live for a while as roommates at Tommy’s pied-à-terre. There’s a transactional element to their bond for sure, with Tommy footing the bill for Greg’s dreams of Hollywood stardom while Greg provides the abrasive and narcissistic Tommy his only real source of human connection. But the two also truly seem to enjoy each other’s company. Greg envies Tommy his lack of inhibition, self-doubt, or shame, while Tommy, whose nickname for Greg is “baby face,” seems to like nurturing his protégé’s growing self-confidence and (much-more-slowly-growing) acting skills. To most of the world, Tommy is an object of derision or disgust; rather than reciting Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare, suggests the teacher of that San Francisco acting workshop, perhaps he should seek out roles as a villain or a monster. But though he’s often embarrassed by Tommy’s inappropriate public outbursts, Greg sees in him a certain mad nobility. He’s a visionary of sorts, albeit a tone-deaf and utterly incompetent one.
James Franco, a wildly prolific if spotty director and passionate but uneven actor, shares some of those Wiseau-esque qualities. He can be dull in one project—his double performance as twin brothers in David Simon’s The Deuce is one of the HBO series’ weak spots—and brilliant in the next. When he played Allen Ginsberg in the 2010 biopic Howl, I feared the worst, but while the movie was pretty thin gruel, he was superb in it: unshowy and intelligent, with a convincing New Jersey accent and a totally transformed physicality. In The Disaster Artist, he nails Wiseau’s strange, slurred speech patterns, unplaceable foreign accent, and air of recalcitrant mystery. Even more impressively, Franco makes Wiseau, maybe the most unpleasant character he’s ever played, someone you genuinely root for in his demented quest for greatness.
As the beleaguered but (mostly) loyal Greg, Dave Franco is also terrific, serving as a proxy for the puzzled but curious audience—his motivation for sticking around, like ours, is in part just to figure out this inscrutable dude. It’s easy to forget the two actors are brothers, but that bond must have informed their performances: They play off each other’s energy, and it’s hard to imagine either one being as good without the other. The Franco brothers’ show-business friendships come in handy in the supporting cast, with cameos from Sharon Stone, Judd Apatow, and Bob Odenkirk as Hollywood movers and shakers and fine actors like Jacki Weaver and Alison Brie giving substance even to small roles. Seth Rogen, who also served as co-producer, is dryly hilarious as the script supervisor on The Room, a seasoned professional who’s clearly beseeching the gods for patience as he calls action on take No. 32.
The case could be made that The Disaster Artist is a little too sunny for a movie about a clearly damaged man whose lifelong drive to create something beautiful only led to his becoming a symbol of grand-scale failure. But in addition to making me laugh, hard, at a time when cathartic laughter is all but a medical necessity, this portrait of the artist as a not-so-young weirdo struck me as peculiarly moving. We all have our dreams, however vain, absurd, or unlikely to come true. If, in the process of attempting to achieve greatness, we instead redefine the parameters of what greatness means, doesn’t that constitute its own kind of victory?