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The unflinching judgment of reality can feel like a cruel betrayal to the earnest and the delusional. If you were to describe enigmatic filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, ‘earnest’ and ‘delusional’ might be the first two words on your list. Wiseau wrote, directed, produced, and starred in 2003’s The Room, a movie so simultaneously baffling and fascinating that it’s been dubbed, “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.”
What possessed a man lacking all discernible filmmaking skills to spend millions of his own money on such a doomed enterprise? James Franco’s latest effort, The Disaster Artist, recounts Wiseau’s cinematic debacle, which plays out like a hilarious case study in hubris.
The running gag throughout The Disaster Artist circles back to three questions: 1. where does Tommy Wiseau come from? 2. how old is he? and 3. where does he get his money? Seriously, what kind of man has the unmitigated gull (and funding) to rent a Hollywood billboard advertising his failed movie for five years?!? Franco, who writes, directs, and stars as Wiseau, wisely avoids transforming this mysterious knucklehead into a tragic or romanticized figure.
Instead, he presents Wiseau as a temperamental dreamer constantly betrayed by a world incapable of understanding his particular genius. We follow his meteoric trajectory from anonymous nobody to infamous nobody, starting with a calamitous reading from A Streetcar Named Desire for his theater class. As he crawls across the stage, screaming “Stella!!!” like some Marlon Brando zombie, it’s hard to tell whether Wiseau is acting or dying.
Wiseau’s full-throated performance is enough to impress Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a morbidly insecure young actor whose acting teacher describes him as a “wounded puppy”. Greg wants to capture the passion that seeps from Wiseau’s frighteningly pale pores. Wiseau graciously takes the Hollywood handsome (but hammy) actor under his wing, and soon the talent-challenged duo prowls the streets of Los Angeles in search of fame… or at least positive reinforcement.
This doomed quest culminates at a high-priced restaurant, where Wiseau accosts a reclusive producer (played by an ultra-pissy Judd Apatow) with memorized Shakespeare sonnets. Apatow’s rebuke, “It’s not going to happen for you,” is the ultimate betrayal for the emphatic Wiseau. Perhaps it was inevitable that his bruised ego would lead to The Room.
It would be easy to lampoon Wiseau, who is a bundle of bad accents and peculiar behavioral tics. In fact, the first act of The Disaster Artist, which might be the funniest 20 minutes committed to film in 2017, treads perilously close to broad comedy. Luckily, Franco’s uncanny performance keeps things firmly locked in the quirky character study camp.
Franco, inspired by Sestero’s 2013 memoir, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room’ the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made, portrays Wiseau as a bizarre mixture of macho vampire and naïve child. The same man who sweetly takes a pinky oath with Sestero to never stop pursuing their dreams is later berating his leading lady for having a “horrendous” pimple on her shoulder during a gratuitous sex scene. When a casting director (the ubiquitous Bob Odenkirk) blithely recommends he dedicate himself to playing monsters and killers, an enraged Wiseau declares, “I am not a villain”, only to later suggest that his brooding character from The Room might actually be a vampire. It’s this riddle, along with Franco’s award-worthy performance, that keeps Wiseau interesting, even if his character doesn’t budge one inch during the entire film.
The primary character arc belongs to Sestero, who must find the antidote to Wiseau’s narcissistic venom before it ruins his life. Dave Franco does a capable job of sharing the frame with his scene-stealing brother, particularly in the film’s opening half, when a wide-eyed Sestero fuels Wiseau’s creative aspirations.
Being the muse for one of cinema’s great disasters is a burden that Sestero must bear, but the film breezes through these potentially dramatic moments in favor of a more crowd-pleasing resolution. It might be interesting to see Sestero wrestle over these conflicting feelings for his disgraced mentor, but that isn’t the story that Franco wants to tell.
Mostly, The Disaster Artist gets its juice from re-living (and sometimes re-creating) the strangeness that was The Room. Those looking for explanations for the film’s more sublime mysteries will be rewarded. Why, for instance, do Wiseau and his buddies toss the football around while standing only three feet apart? The explanation becomes clear after watching Wiseau play a game of catch, which resembles a man trying to toss a tangle of razor blades.
Other mysteries, such as why Wiseau insista upon building sets instead of shooting on location (including the alley outside his studio!) or why he choses to buy expensive film equipment rather than rent it, remain inexplicable. Franco understands that completely demystifying The Room threatens to strip away what makes it so enthralling.
Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Franco’s The Disaster Artist is that it encourages audiences to laugh with Wiseau and his clueless cohorts rather than mock them. This is a hilarious warning that dreams can become nightmares in the hands of an inept dreamer. Many disasters like The Room command just as much devotion from cinephiles as heralded cinematic classics, and Franco expertly captures that allure with humor and reverence.