AFI Fest Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ is James Franco’s Lovingly Hilarious Homage to ‘The Room’

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The Disaster Artist

Hollywood is full of oddball stories about outsiders who through persistence were able to find their way to silver screen glory – one example would be Jon Peters who went from hairstylist to studio head. None is odder than the path taken by Tommy Wiseau, the eccentric who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the cult phenomenon The Room. Despite all the attention paid to Wiseau following the cult status of The Room, he’s still a mystery. Nobody knows where’s he’s from. Nobody knows his backstory. Nobody knows his age. Nobody knows how he had in excess of $6 million to finance his bewildering opus. The making of The Room was documented in the book The Disaster Artist by the film’s co-star and Wiseau’s friend Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book with Tom Bissell). Now the story behind the best worst movie ever made is a movie in itself, directed by and starring James Franco, The Disaster Artist.

The film opens in San Francisco in the late ‘90s. Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is struggling in his acting class, apprehensive when reading lines from Waiting for Godot. The next performer in this quaint class is the mysterious Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a man with jet black hair and an accent that is from parts unknown. He flails about as attempts to reenact scenes from Tennessee Williams, leaving all watching with their mouths agape. Greg asks Tommy to do a scene with him, hoping the fearlessness of Wiseau will rub off the nervous young actor. The two quickly become friends, but Wiseau remains secretive about any of the details of his life. Then Tommy hits up Greg with a proposal to move to Los Angeles. The young Sestero doesn’t have the money for a move south, but Tommy assures him that he can stay at his Los Angeles apartment. This mysterious oddball has an apartment in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as a white Mercedes Benz that he drives – and yet there’s still that unresolved question: how?

In Los Angeles, Sestero is quickly able to get representation for his burgeoning acting career while Tommy can’t figure out why nobody will let him get a foot in the door. Tommy resolves to solve his problem. He’s going to write and direct his own movie for himself and Greg. He toils away at his screenplay and comes up with The Room. Then, with his mysterious depths of wealth, Tommy finances his own movie, going as far to buy the cameras, one film and one digital, instead of renting them. He hires a veteran script supervisor (Seth Rogen), an experienced director of photography (Paul Scheer), and assembles his eager cast of out of work actors. Then they begin the hellish and unusual production that will in a short time become a cult movie sensation that still plays at midnight all over the world to this very day.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of The Disaster Artist is the transformation that James Franco goes through to become Tommy Wiseau. The actor-director truly becomes his subject, inflecting a perfect imitation of the mysterious accent and the makeup department helping Franco adopt Wiseau’s weathered visage. Franco’s performance is so good at capturing the mannerisms of Wiseau that the movie is basically leading off with a double. James Franco has a tireless work ethic but that doesn’t always yield positive results, but in The Disaster Artist the multifaceted performer delivers his best work as an actor and as a director.

At its heart, The Disaster Artist is an unusual buddy comedy. The screenplay by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter take the inspiration from Sestero’s book and deftly craft a friendship built upon a shaky foundation of secrets and ambition. Whenever there’s a positive development in Sestero’s life that makes him less dependent on the generosity of Wiseau, the mysterious would-be filmmaker lashes out in a passive aggressive rage of jealousy. This first becomes apparent during Sestero’s relationship with Amber (Alison Brie), but kicks into high gear as the mysterious man from parts unknown morphs into a difficult auteur on the set of his misbegotten masterpiece. At one point, Sestero is able to secure a small role on Malcom in the Middle thanks to Bryan Cranston, only to have the opportunity dashed by Wiseau’s insistence that Greg work on The Room that day. And yet despite all these moments where the friendship that inspired the film becomes strained, there’s still a connection between these two and that becomes apparent at the film’s premiere towards the end of the film.

Thankfully, the narrative construction of The Disaster Artist and the various cameos and performances that populate the film are consistently hilarious because this film features some of the ugliest digital cinematography that I’ve seen in years. Part of me wonders if Franco and his crew decided to use the same kind of digital cameras that were available in 2002, the year the film is mostly set in. For a film that is so constantly entertaining, I was struck just by how distracting the digital noise that fills up the screen in low lighting truly is. It seems that more care was taken in meticulously recreating scenes from The Room, which is perfectly fine because like Franco performance, the imitation is practically perfect. But I feel that the problems with the film cinematography are what is holding it back from greatness.

The Disaster Artist lively captures the unusual friendship that led to one of the most unusual movies ever made. Be sure to stay all the way through the credits as there are a couple more surprises to be had after the credits roll. The film is not without its issues but it’s so deft at capturing the manic energy that Sestero and Bissell capture in their book, and the star-studded cast delivers some hilarious work. The Room endures because there’s nothing quite like it, and The Disaster Artist presents a delightful portrait of why the cult classic has absolutely no peers in the world of so-bad-it’s-good cinema.

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