Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the Toronto International Film Festival.
I’ve never really considered The Room, the midnight cult favorite from writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau, to be a movie as much as it is an immersive experience. It’s a film so bad, it actually can’t be enjoyed alone at home, even by viewers under the influence. It’s more like The Rocky Horror Picture Show: a pop culture curiosity where the real joy is interacting with other members of a live audience in a shared moment of How did this even happen? catharsis.
Given that, I didn’t really know what to expect going into James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. Based on the book by The Room co-star Greg Sestero, it tells the story of the unlikely friendship between Wiseau and Sestero, which ultimately led to what’s considered by some to be the worst movie ever made. But it raises a simple question: if the stupefying mystery of how The Room could even exist is part of its weird appeal, would a movie explaining that ruin the fun?
Not in the slightest. Franco has created a movie that is not just hilarious, accessible, and an incredible amount of fun in its own right, but it had me more eager to revisit Wiseau’s train wreck than ever before.
What’s the genre?
Comedy. More specifically, a comedic bromance biopic. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is the obvious reference point, but The Disaster Artist is able to carve out its own unique niche.
What’s it about?
Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is an aspiring actor in San Francisco when he meets the eccentric Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, delivering a captivating performance beneath makeup prosthetics). Wiseau is the oddest of the oddballs, prone to overly dramatic “performances” in acting class, but his fearlessness ignites something in the otherwise-reserved Sestero. After bonding over their shared acting dream, the pair moves to Los Angeles to take on Hollywood.
Once there, Sestero finds an agent and a girlfriend, and slowly starts to build the semblance of a real life. Wiseau’s bizarre accent and eccentricities keep him on the outside looking in, however, until Sestero suggests they just make their own movie. That leads Wiseau to write The Room, and as the pair set out to shoot it, Wiseau’s fragile ego and bizarre behavior take center stage in a production where absolutely every possible thing goes wrong.
What’s it really about?
The power of friendship, and the importance of believing in your dreams, no matter what the world thinks. Part of what makes The Disaster Artist work so well is that it adopts the beats and structure of an inspirational underdog story. Wiseau’s dreams are boundless, and his confidence is never-ending. No matter how bad things get, he refuses to give up. There’s a real charm to his indomitability, particularly early on when he serves as such a clear inspiration to Sestero. It’s impossible to not root for this bizarre misfit — even when he repeatedly lies, in his strange Eastern European accent, that he’s from New Orleans.
The film is subversive, though: it also portrays Wiseau as horrifically untalented, and such a petty human being that he’s willing to screw Sestero out of a huge career opportunity just because he feels rejected. It’s an inspirational story about a guy portrayed as not deserving success, and viewed from the perspective of the Sestero character, The Disaster Artist transforms into a cautionary tale about getting too close to people who use their personal dreams as an excuse to sell out those close to them. It’s a balancing act, but both aspects ultimately pay off when The Room is pilloried — giving Wiseau the comeuppance he so richly deserves — and then embraced as a comedic cult classic.
Is it good?
The Disaster Artist is fantastically entertaining, and not just for the litany of The Room Easter eggs (though those are certainly there, both in the form of drive-by references and shot-for-shot scene re-creations). The centerpiece is James Franco’s turn as Wiseau, and it is a hilarious, committed performance. He nails the filmmaker’s odd voice and awkward mannerisms, but also brings a charm and fragility to the part. Those elements make the movie version of Wiseau more than just a one-off joke. The film heavily implies that Wiseau is attracted to his best friend, and when Sestero starts dating a bartender (Allison Brie), James Franco plays Wiseau’s outbursts as adolescent attempts at masking a real sense of rejection. That idea carries through in the on-set meltdowns that stack up during the production of The Room. As absurd and hilarious as Wiseau is here, he also genuinely feels out of sync with the rest of the world, and he’s consumed with the frustration of not being able to truly express himself.
The film also delivers on the meat-and-potatoes comic absurdity that James Franco has made such a highlight of his career, often alongside collaborator Seth Rogen. (Rogen is here as well, playing the film’s script supervisor, who is constantly befuddled by how clueless the filmmakers are.) Combine that with Wiseau and Sestero’s buddy-comedy throughline, and a movie that should be nichey becomes accessible and mainstream. The golly-gee idealism of Dave Franco’s Sestero makes him a perfect audience surrogate, and a wonderful foil for the brooding, vampiric Wiseau.
But the most impressive thing to note about The Disaster Artist is how it’s able to reframe perceptions of The Room itself. This is an idealized, romanticized version of the making of that film, but it makes The Room feel like less of a bizarre train wreck, and more like the earnest effort of a would-be artist who just wasn’t good enough at realizing he wasn’t good enough. It’s the same trick Ed Wood pulled off. While The Disaster Artist never hits the highs of Tim Burton’s film, it nevertheless generates incredible goodwill toward The Room, and makes the prospect of watching it — even without that live audience — seem like a fun idea.
What should it be rated?
Between the language, some of the jokes, and the lingering shots of James Franco’s butt — all in the name of accurately re-creating The Room, of course — I’m guessing this one will land an R rating. But it’s a very soft R.
How can I actually watch it?
The Disaster Artist is opening in limited release on December 1st, and is currently scheduled to open wide on December 8th. I cannot wait to see it again.