How much background you have with the 2003 feature film “The Room” (not to be confused with the 2015 Brie Larson film) will make the difference in watching “The Disaster Artist” and thinking James Franco is either brilliant or he’s completely lost his acting mind. Those seeing it with no knowledge of the original production will find “The Disaster Artist” to be a quirky look at the movie business. Anyone who has seen “The Room” (or at least looked at clips from the film on YouTube) will see this is an incredible peek at what happens when those with no business making movies produce a film.
It all starts with an unforgettable performance by James Franco as Tommy Wiseau, an actor (the term is used very sparingly here) living and working in San Francisco who has less acting talent than a dead fish. At least the fish will eventually make you believe it is no longer alive. Wiseau claims he’s from New Orleans, but that could only be the case if the Big Easy had been blown to the Eastern Bloc by a hurricane. His assertion of being in his 20s is only a few decades off, and not for the better.
But, what Wiseau has — for reasons no one knows to this day — is an endless supply of money. He convinces baby-faced fellow actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) to move to Los Angeles with him to pursue acting careers. When that predictably fails, the pair decide to make a movie to be written and directed by Wiseau, plus he will be the star.
Had none of the insanity that enveloped the project really happened, the movie would be the kind of sendup of Hollywood that worked in movies like “After the Fox,” “Bowfinger” or “Tropic Thunder.” Hollywood has often turned the cameras on the filmmaking process, but generally the approach is a work of fiction.
Unbelievable as each scene is, all “The Disaster Artist” does is re-create the truth. The best scenes are when Wiseau and the legitimate members of his cast and crew clash. For the first scene in “The Room,” an elaborate alley set has been built inside a soundstage. It’s a replica of an alley that is right outside the door, but Wiseau’s approach is every scene has to be shot on a set because “it is a big Hollywood movie.”
That big Hollywood movie that brought in only $1,800 at the box office in the United States ended up costing $6 million to make. A lot of the cost came from Wiseau opting to shoot the movie both on 35 millimeter and digital with equipment he bought rather than rented.
Wiseau is a disaster behind the camera, but he’s even worse when he tries to act because of his garbled accent and an inability to remember his lines. Every disaster that unfolds around Wiseau is played by Franco with such a bizarre grandeur that in any other film it would be considered the worst case of overacting since the days when villains tied helpless maidens to railroad tracks in melodramas. If Franco had toned it down even a breath, the performance would not have been nearly as fascinating and funny.
There’s an absurdist quality to the performance that keeps “The Disaster Artist” from just being a brutal and snobbish assault on the pitiful excuse for a movie. Under Franco’s direction and through his performance, there’s a sense of wonderment as to how such a major film fiasco could be made. Even as it plays out through the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer”), the mystery of “The Room” remains as bizarre as ever.
Also anchoring the movie in this strange form of reality are several cameo appearances, including a restaurant rant by Judd Apatow in which he expresses everything the audience is thinking to that point. Even after being dressed down so publicly, Wiseau continues his direction that would end up making him the new Ed Woods.
As a footnote to show “The Disaster Artist” is not some trumped-up look at a minor film failure, Franco ends the production with a series of scenes from “The Room” running side-by-side with how the scenes were re-shot by “The Disaster Artist” crew. The similarities are frightening but emphasize how there was no need to pad scenes with silliness because the original product was so painfully terrible.
The best way to fully appreciate “The Disaster Artist” would be to see it as a double feature with “The Room.” Since that’s not likely to happen (and that’s not the worst thing), “The Disaster Artist” can still be fully appreciated on its own. James Franco has placed enough links to the original film that his based-on-fact look at the making of “The Room” is weirdly fun on its own and one of the most creative films of the year.
FYI: Don’t rush from the theater when the credits start or you will miss a truly surreal cinema moment.
‘THE DISASTER ARTIST’
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Ari Graynor.
Director: James Franco.
Rated NR but includes language, violence, nudity.
Running time: 105 minutes.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.