Review: “The Disaster Artist”

Film critic reviews "The Disaster Artist," directed by and starring James Franco.

“The Disaster Artist” is a missed opportunity. It takes the most bizarre, fascinating true story of cult cinema and reduces it down to an oddball, feel-good joke. There’s a story worth telling here, but it feels like director James Franco is giving us Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes.

At its core, the film tells the story of the unlikely friendship between Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, stars of the 2003 midnight movie sensation “The Room.” Adapted from Sestero’s book of the same name (reviewed here), “The Disaster Artist” spans from Wiseau and Sestero’s first encounter in an acting class up through the premiere of “The Room.”

“The Room” is a melodrama famous for its stunning, unintentional awfulness, which is heightened by the peculiar nature of Wiseau, its star/writer/director/financier. A lanky but muscular middle-aged man with a mess of long black hair and an inscrutable Eastern European accent, he’s a singular cinematic figure, a living, breathing WTF moment.

After meeting at an acting class, Tommy (Franco) and Greg (brother Dave Franco) become fast, albeit oddly matched friends. Wiseau is goofy enigma of a man, one who yearns for fame but won’t divulge his age, birthplace, personal history, or the source of his seemingly staggering wealth. Whereas Sestero’s book split the narrative between before and after “The Room” was filmed, the movie zips to the film’s troubled production, which sees a flummoxed professional cast and crew trying to appease their stupefyingly incompetent director.

Wiseau told me that he approved of “50%” of the book, but in the press for this film, he endorses it “99.9%.” It’s not hard to see why. The movie takes a surprisingly soft touch with Wiseau, perhaps because Franco likes the guy, but more likely to ensure his cooperation. This sanitizing of Wiseau’s strange behavior and background, detailed in the book and elsewhere, comes at the cost of emotional resonance. There’s little insight into the nature of art and desire, the things that make Wiseau a compelling figure.

“The Disaster Artist” compares unfavorably to “Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s brilliant 1995 biopic of the man formerly considered Hollywood’s worst filmmaker. What Burton and star Johnny Depp (who is perhaps not coincidentally name-dropped here) understood is that even terrible art by bad artists can be deeply rewarding to its creators. But whereas Wood had to hustle to get his films made, here the wealthy Wiseau just cuts a giant check, more on impulse than love of cinema.

Franco’s worst mistake is making himself the director. The movie’s technical production values are light-years ahead of those of “The Room,” but that’s not saying much. Franco’s camera is listless and meandering, his scenery boilerplate with the exception of meticulously recreated sets for Wiseau’s disasterpiece. The opening scene features an bevy of D-to-B-list celebrities vaguely blathering about their affection for “The Room,” a stupefyingly stupid way to start the film, as if a) What follows is a documentary b) Anyone cares what Adam Scott has to say about literally anything.

The conclusion wildly deviates from reality, finding the premiere audience laughing and applauding uproariously. With this convenient telling of the events, Franco does a great disservice to the real story behind “The Room,” which in reality took nearly a decade to fully ascend from freakshow oddity to midnight cult classic. The ascension of “The Room” from one weirdo’s vanity project to midnight phenomenon is a tale worth telling, but Franco is wholly uninterested, settling for feel-good Love Yourself vibes that don’t ring entirely true.

Where Franco fails as a filmmaker, he excels as a mimic. While his traditional handsomeness might make him seem an unnatural fit for the strange Wiseau, Franco embodies his subject both in spirit and physicality, brilliantly capturing his oddball obtuseness and can’t-look-away appearance. Despite the film’s failure to land emotionally, the actor’s uncanny impression of Wiseau results in a litany of screwball situations that draw deep laughs.

James’ brother Dave does fine work as Sestero, a good-natured prettyboy whose impulsive outreach to Wiseau takes him on an unlikely path to the stardom for which he yearned. By contrast, the director’s tendency to cast pretty much every minor role with a recognizable actor (Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone, and Bob Odenkirk) is a distracting pander to his own ego, but some (Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, and Ali Graynor) briefly shine as members of Wiseau’s beleaguered and bewildered cast.

In the end, “The Disaster Artist” is a what Wiseau calls a “real Hollywood movie,” but it lacks the bizarro verve that made “The Room” not just entertaining, but unforgettable.