There was a weird energy in the air of the Paramount Theater as SXSW prepared to unveil James Franco and Seth Rogen’s latest collaboration, “The Disaster Artist.” As it was a world premiere, there was the standard heady anticipation, but buzz about the fest was that not only would Franco and Rogen be in the house (a fact confirmed by reserved seats labeled with their names) but also the subject of this docu-comedy, Tommy Wiseau. This added a whiff of acrid unease, for he is the writer/director behind “The Room,” a cult sensation that rivals Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” for the dubious title of Best Worst Movie Ever Made. And damn, Wiseau was in for a rough night I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Since “The Room”s debut in a lone Los Angeles theater in 2003, the film has become an object of mockery and obsession for a group of fans who love to flock to theaters to see it, throwing spoons, and treating it with gleeful scorn. Wiseau himself has become an entertaining enigma to cinephiles. Despite claiming he’s from New Orleans, his accent is vaguely Eastern European. Though he long insisted he was in his early twenties, he looked closer to 40 or 50. And then there’s his massive “bottomless pit” fortune, the source of which is unknown. These curiosities are all recurring punch lines in “The Disaster Artist,” each of which — along with every line Franco delivered in Wiseau’s idiosyncratic patter — was met with giddy howls of laughter from a raucous audience. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that the man being laughed at was mere feet away.
In case you’ve never seen “The Room,” all you need to know is that Wiseau made it alongside his best friend and co-star Greg Sestero. The wild Wiseau poured his own money in, and his behavior on set was mercurial and often abusive. The resulting film was self-distributed, and its inexplicable script, confusing plot, and campy performances earned it the ironic adoration of a sprawling fandom. Sestero later wrote a book about his experience on the film, “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.” Among the fans of the movie and this book, was James Franco, who dreamed of directing and starring as the infamous Wiseau.
The acclaimed screenwriting team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer,” “The Spectacular Now”) were hired to shape Sestero’s book into a comedy that not only showed the bonkers story behind the making of this notorious movie, but also the fervent friendship of its author and subject. Then, producers Franco and Rogen called on a slew of their famous friends (Kristen Bell, Josh Hutcherson, Judd Apatow, Zac Efron and many more) to fill out the cast and cameos. Dave Franco was chosen to star opposite his brother in the role of the open-hearted aspiring actor Greg, and while the two Francos share a mesmerizing onscreen chemistry, the choice to make Greg the protagonist over Tommy means Wiseau is treated like a magical weirdo for most of the film.
Consider “Ed Wood” for a moment. In that comedy/biopic, Johnny Depp played the cross-dressing outcast director, who Tim Burton deftly framed as weird but wonderful. His movies were mocked, but Wood was undoubtedly the hero of this story by the very virtue of making his movies his way. We’re meant to relate to his passion and to the pain of feeling like a misfit.
In “The Disaster Artist,” the final act tries to bend into a similar conclusion, celebrating Tommy for making a movie that had a grand impact, even if it wasn’t the one he intended. That he has maintained the mysteries of his origin, age and wealth are treated like victories alongside the financial success “The Room” eventually achieved. But after more than an hour of allowing us to openly guffaw at Tommy in his awkwardness, appearance, obliviousness, narcissism and even nudity, this turn feels disingenuous and unearned. Franco wants to have his cake and eat it too, openly mocking Wiseau for his weirdness (from laughable football skills, to “vampire”-like looks, and broken English), then heralding him for his persistence and ability to embrace “The Room”s reputation. The fact that this character turn happens in a matter of seconds, with Tommy going from stricken at the movie-within-a-movie’s premiere to exultant at its curtain call, is jarring and uncouth. It doesn’t allow Tommy to be complex or empathetic so much as cartoonish and absurd. And while Franco was quick to praise Wiseau in the post-screening Q&A, his appreciation rang hollow as he invited the featured filmmaker onstage, but never allowed Wiseau a moment to take the mic and speak for himself.
I’ve spent days thinking about this film, and I’m still conflicted.
There’s an earnestness and heart here that makes me think Franco genuinely aimed to celebrate Wiseau. You’ll hear a lot about the incredible impression Franco delivered of Wiseau, a point underlined during the credits, where scenes from “The Room” and its “Disaster Artist” re-enactments roll side by side, almost in sync. With the help of prosthetics, Franco does dive hard into this confounding figure of cult film. But he’s so caught up in hitting the eccentricities of this character, that he fails to imbue his Tommy with a soul. That comes from Dave Franco’s performance, as Greg sacrifices a romance, a big opportunity, and his own happiness for Tommy’s vision. Tommy is left to be seen as the villain he fears the world perceives him as, and ultimately the joke of those who have the looks, the access, the fame, he craves.
There is a fascinating story about creative conviction, passion and the mayhem of filmmaking to be found in “The Disaster Artist.” If it were pure fiction, you could enjoy it guilt-free as a ludicrous but lithe satire. However knowing that these are real people, still living, whose work and dreams are being openly dissected and mocked by handsome, wealthy and powerful movie stars, it’s difficult to forget the Wiseau in the room and enjoy this crass and cutting comedy.
“The Disaster Artist” made its world premiere at SXSW. It does not currently have a release date.