“So bad they’re good” movies tend to be overambitious productions that get away from their creators, with ludicrous plots and bad special effects. The Room, the 2003 anti-classic from eccentric writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau, is a strange exception. On paper, it’s a simple drama about a man betrayed by his cheating girlfriend, set in modern-day San Francisco. But its disjointed pile-up of abandoned subplots, inhumanly stilted acting, and anatomically improbable sex scenes have cemented its place as one of the worst films of all time. Conversely, The Disaster Artist — a new film about the making of The Room — is not only the rare example of a genuinely funny biopic, but a subtle meta-commentary on the state of cult filmmaking.
Directed by and starring James Franco, The Disaster Artist is based on an excellent nonfiction book of the same name by Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s friend and Room co-star. The film smoothes and condenses parts of the story; Wiseau’s screenplay, for example, is no longer adapted from a massive unpublished novel. But the most bizarre moments are all ostensibly true, and it got Sestero and Wiseau’s blessing.
A lot of The Disaster Artist's audience will be hardcore fans of The Room, who will find plenty of red meat, including side-by-side comparisons between the original film and Franco's reshoots. The only criticism I heard at a SXSW Q&A was that it didn’t reference The Room’s ubiquitous spoon pictures. Disaster Artist also shows the depth of Room fandom in Hollywood: among others, Sharon Stone, Brian Cranston, Melanie Griffith, and Zac Efron all have minor roles in Franco’s film.
James Franco is a bombastic version of Wiseau, but he gets the accent down
But The Disaster Artist is more interesting as a character study of Wiseau than as a celebrity showcase. Thematically, it has a lot in common with Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 film about the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space director. Where the latter invited viewers directly into Wood’s psyche, the former keeps Wiseau at a distance, as seen through the eyes of Sestero — played by James Franco’s brother, Dave Franco. A teenage Sestero meets Wiseau at a theater class in San Francisco, where he’s captivated by a fearlessly atrocious reading of A Streetcar Named Desire, concluding with Wiseau literally climbing the walls. It’s unclear where Wiseau is from, how old he is, or why he seems to be independently wealthy; when asked, his answers range from vague to blatantly nonsensical. (To be clear, this is true of the real-world Wiseau as well.) The pair soon move to Los Angeles and fruitlessly pursue full-time acting careers, until a frustrated Wiseau declares he’ll produce — as well as write, direct, and star in — a movie himself.
The boyish-looking James Franco is an imperfect match for Tommy Wiseau’s craggy agelessness. But he captures Wiseau’s distinctively unplaceable European accent and stentorian slur, delivering lines in a lurching, syncopated cadence. The fictional Wiseau is more consistently bombastic than his real-world counterpart, who can be relatively normal-sounding in interviews. In the film, it’s fitting, as though Wiseau is unconsciously imitating a fantasy version of himself: the suave, successful actor who comes from New Orleans and always tells questioners he’s “your age,” no matter how young they are. It’s possible to slip into cruelty when making a punchline of real people, but the humor doesn't feel mean-spirited. And the real Wiseau, who makes a fourth-wall-breaking cameo, seems generally sanguine about his over-the-top public image.
Franco’s Wiseau is like Ed Wood crossed with an alien
Like Ed Wood, Wiseau has ambition that outstrips his talent. But at least Wood could place some blame on chronic budget problems and unforeseen disasters. The fictional Wiseau creates his own bad luck, usually through hubris and transparently vulnerable posturing. His bizarro vision of Hollywood overrides expert advice or common sense — for a Room scene that takes place in an alley, Wiseau demands an indoor replica of the real alley directly outside, purely because “real movies” use sets. His idea of a casting call involves barking incomprehensible, surrealist scenarios for actors to mime. And his attitude toward Sestero slowly becomes more patronizing than avuncular, even when Wiseau can barely hold the production together without him.
The Room’s mistakes are myriad and hilarious, and in The Disaster Artist, their offscreen context can be just as funny. Cast and crew members gamely muddle through nonsensical scenes in inhumane working conditions, while Wiseau barely seems to understand his own screenplay. Seth Rogen plays script supervisor Sandy Schklair, who has also claimed to be The Room’s de facto director, as an audience surrogate dryly observing the whole mess. In one of the most evocatively weird vignettes, Schklair and Sestero film take after take of Wiseau hearing a somber anecdote about domestic violence, vainly seeking any reaction other than canned laughter. It’s not that Wiseau seems to think misogyny is funny. He’s more like an alien faking his way through human interactions, even though his universal translator is a little off. The fact that the real Wiseau apparently gave Sestero a custom pen tipped with a planet labeled “Tommy’s World” is almost too perfect to be true.
In a work of total fiction, Wiseau’s ultimate success would seem unrealistically optimistic. But that’s exactly what makes The Disaster Artist such an interesting counterpart to something like Ed Wood: the bittersweet ending of Burton’s film underscores Wood’s failure, even as it celebrates his dreams. Plan 9 took two decades to win its title as the “best worst movie ever made,” and Wood’s biopic appeared more than a decade later, 16 years after the director died in poverty. But Wiseau had the good luck to work in an era of instant cult classics, where his inept overconfidence could be celebrated for its authenticity and enthusiasm. In The Disaster Artist, Franco mythologizes him as the patron saint of anyone who follows their dreams against all odds — even, or perhaps especially, when those dreams are objectively awful.
A version of this review ran in March 2017, to coincide with the film’s premiere at SXSW. It has been updated and reposted to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.