[This is a re-post of my review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The Disaster Artist opens tomorrow in limited release.]
I’m not a huge fan of The Room, either on its own merits or the cult that has built up around it. I’ve seen it by itself and I’ve seen it with a crowd, and obviously seeing it with a crowd is the way to go, but overall, I always felt that its following was manufactured and overdone. It was a bad movie, sure, but there wasn’t anything about it that made it stand apart from other ineptly made pictures. And yet regardless of my feelings on The Room, James Franco’s adaptation of the film’s making-of, The Disaster Artist, uses Tommy Wiseau’s infamous film as a springboard for a story of friendship and creativity. Instead of just being a feature-length fan appreciation video (although there’s a genuine reverence for The Room), The Disaster Artist is more concerned about humanizing Wiseau through his friendship with Greg Sestero. You’ll still be laughing throughout, but you’ll be charmed by the film’s sweetness and affability.
In 1998 in San Francisco, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is an aspiring actor who is wowed by a performance from his eccentric and fearless fellow acting student Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Hoping to learn from the enigmatic Wiseau, Greg and Tommy strike up a friendship and eventually move to L.A. to try and make it as actors. When they both struggle, Greg suggests they should make their own movie. Tommy, who is wealthy—although the source of his income is as much of a mystery as his origin and his age—backs the movie and also writes the script, direct, and stars. With production on The Room underway, Greg and Tommy’s friendship begins to crumble underneath the strain of Tommy’s insecurities.
Getting Michael H. Weber & Scott Neustadter to pen the screenplay was a stroke of genius. Bringing the same amount of heart they brought to The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, the script has an incredibly amount of empathy for Wiseau. While we can argue whether or not that sympathy is deserved for the real-life Wiseau, from the perspective of the movie, it’s essential that we care about this total misfit. He’s weird, he’s arrogant, and he has no business writing, directing, and starring in a movie, but we kind of love him anyway, especially because Franco leans into his vulnerabilities. The world rejects Wiseau, and that rejection further deepens how much he needs Greg. Greg, for his part, is a pretty normal dude, so every time he goes to pursue an independent interest like his career or a romantic relationship, Tommy reacts poorly, which further strains their friendship.
The next best thing the film does is having the Francos as the lead since their real-life brotherhood translates well even if their real personalities are nothing like Greg and Tommy. They understand kinship, having a shorthand, and lifting the other person up when they’re feeling down. Dave Franco has the unenviable task of playing the straight man, but he does it well, and he makes for a good audience surrogate. Meanwhile, James Franco disappears into Tommy Wiseau. If we’re going to be busy this award season celebrating Gary Oldman’s transformation into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, then we also have to do the same for Franco becoming Wiseau. He takes what could have easily been a parody and make Wiseau into a real, three-dimensional person who not only makes us laugh with all of his eccentricities, but also gets us to care about his loneliness and insecurities.
By keeping the focus on the emotions of its lead characters, The Disaster Artist finds a surprising honesty that goes far beyond simple appreciation for The Room. Granted, people who have seen The Room will probably get a little bit more out of the film than those who haven’t, and there are plenty of laughs to be had at the absurdity of how the cult hit came into existence. But instead of coasting on camaraderie with The Room fans, The Disaster Artist feels like a richer, more thoughtful experience about how even bad art has its place if you can come to its honestly. Even though the reaction to The Room isn’t what Wiseau intended, his movie only could have come fro his mind. Rather than exist as the butt of the joke, he decided to make the joke his own.
The Disaster Artist is about that ownership and how the path there came from the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero. The relationship never feels false or saccharine, and it makes the story of The Room so much richer than a celebration of a cult hit. Fans of The Room will certainly relish the humor, but The Disaster Artist has so much more to offer than jokes and James Franco doing a weird accent.