“THE DISASTER ARTIST” — 3 stars — James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor, Seth Rogen, Zac Efron; R (language throughout and some sexuality/nudity); in general release
By the end of James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” you may wonder if a spectacular failure is ultimately preferable to forgettable mediocrity.
“The Disaster Artist” is the story behind “The Room,” one of the most infamous cult movies of the 21st century that is widely regarded as the worst movie ever made. Like Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” Franco builds his film around a tortured and enigmatic artist who is adorable, relatable and catastrophically incompetent.
In “The Disaster Artist,” that artist is Tommy Wiseau, a lanky, creepy enigma with an inexplicable pool of wealth at his disposal. With his stringy jet-black hair and cryptic eastern European accent — even though he adamantly insists he’s from New Orleans — Tommy embodies what one character in the film describes as a “malevolent presence,” better suited to the villain role instead of the heroic spotlight he desires.
The story picks up in 1998 as Tommy (played by Franco) meets Greg Sestero (played by Franco’s brother Dave), a naïve 19-year-old aspiring actor who can’t get over his shyness issues. They meet in a San Francisco acting class, where Greg is stunned by Tommy’s willingness to bear his soul on demand. They bond on a spontaneous road trip to visit the spot where James Dean died and decide to head off to Hollywood together to pursue their dreams.
Sadly, those dreams are met by a relentless stream of rejection, which leads to a Ghostbusters-style epiphany when Greg and Tommy decide to circumvent the heartless Hollywood establishment and just make a movie on their own. Tommy produces a script, ambiguously titled “The Room,” and production begins in 2002.
Most of “The Disaster Artist” follows the production of the ill-fated film, which proves to be a semi-biographical vanity project for Tommy, who also directs, produces, stars as the lead character Johnny and seems strangely determined to get his bare backside on screen.
Greg winds up with the role of Mark, Johnny’s best friend, who is sleeping with Johnny’s girlfriend Lisa (Ari Graynor). As production moves along, you get the feeling that the Lisa character is a stand-in for Greg’s girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie), who Tommy feels is stealing Greg away from him. Several of the supporting cast come to believe an alternate theory, however, where Lisa is a stand-in for the entire universe, which Tommy blames for rejecting his noble spirit.
Behind the camera, Seth Rogen plays Sandy, the director of photography who tries to keep the production together despite Tommy’s inexperience and incompetence. Other familiar faces such as Zac Efron, Sharon Stone and Bob Odenkirk provide fun cameos as we see the making of many infamous scenes from the film, including Tommy’s water bottle monologue and an awkward love scene that, while played for comic purposes, may give audiences more of James Franco than they bargained for.
The film is a showcase for Franco, whose performance is so bizarre that you would normally expect him to get criticism for overacting. But in this case, he seems pretty faithful to his real-life inspiration.
“The Disaster Artist’s” treatment of that inspiration — which falls somewhere between outright mockery and sincere adoration — is perhaps the film’s most unique accomplishment. Tommy is square in Franco’s comic crosshairs, but the film also sympathizes with him as it captures the melodramatic hope of making the big time in Hollywood, the frustration of having reality crush your dreams and the wisdom that comes from having to make the best of a rotten situation.
At some point you’ll inevitably wonder just how much of the truth has been exaggerated for this “based on a true story.” That’s probably why Franco finishes the film with several minutes of shot-by-shot comparisons of original scenes from “The Room” next to his re-creations. You don’t have to have seen “The Room” in order to enjoy “The Disaster Artist,” but for fans of Wiseau’s opus, Franco’s film is an early Christmas present.
“The Disaster Artist” is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity; running time: 103 minutes.