“The Room” is a bad movie that people love to mock. “The Disaster Artist” is a good movie about the making of that bad movie, which is a lot harder to pull off. While director and star James Franco’s behind-the-scenes recreation of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero’s cult classic carries a lingering sense of “having their cake and eating it, too,” the film is less focused on mocking the failures of its source material. From laugh to laugh — and there are many — you might question the target of the jones, but that’s often because “The Disaster Artist” rarely works on one level: There’s meta humor, self-referential gags, and human reverence paid to the earnest pursuit of a Hollywood dream.
Such are the layered joys of this exuberant — if surprisingly conventional — buddy comedy about the making of the worst movie of all time.
Compared to “The Room,” however, “The Disaster Artist” has a pretty straightforward plot. We first meet Greg (Dave Franco) and Tommy (James Franco) at an acting class in San Francisco. Greg is struggling to emote in a scene and finds inspiration in Tommy’s fearless performance. The two get together to work on scenes together, and soon their friendship blossoms.
While Greg is a bit shy, he otherwise fits the bill for a handsome young actor with big goals. He’s got plenty of charm and knows how to modulate his skills. Tommy…well, he’s a bucket of quirk. He speaks in broken English, dropping indefinite articles from sentences and adopting a peculiar foreign accent that he claims to have originated in New Orleans, but sounds further removed than Benjamin Button’s. He proclaims his love for “American football,” but struggles to catch a light toss or throw the ball without both hands. He laughs at inappropriate times, says inappropriate things, and acts inappropriately 99 percent of the time.
Fans of “The Room” will recognize him (and the above references) immediately, but it takes “The Disaster Artist” a bit of time before the two wannabe actors decide to make the famous project. As the pair embark on a road trip, move in together, and hit the town, we’re introduced to a number of telling interactions meant to foreshadow their future collaborations, which “The Room” fans may pick up on long before the uninitiated.
A fleet of familiar comedic faces come and go, including Seth Rogen as a baffled script survivor and Judd Apatow as a mean-spirited Hollywood producer. Good actors try to pay homage to bad acting, good writers to bad writing, and so on and so forth. Sometimes these portrayals can feel aggressive. Sometimes they’re just gimmicky. But they’re all in service of a disarmingly sweet story about best friends seeking the Hollywood dream.
Based on the rapturous attention to detail paid to “The Room” — exhibited throughout “The Disaster Artist,” but also showcased during side-by-side scene comparisons during the end credits, as both Francos and the rest of the cast’s work is shown next to scenes from the original film — “The Disaster Artist” should play as well at midnight screenings as “The Room” does now. Franco’s script fills in the backstory for many of the infamous, logic-defying mistakes — think of that water bottle scene — and even manages to enhance their entertainment value. But the more pertinent question is whether or not “The Disaster Artist” can transcend beyond this pre-established fandom whenever it hits theaters. (No release date has been announced yet.)
Because you really do have to see “The Room” to know just how ridiculous it can get, there are dozens of moments in “The Disaster Artist” when you wonder if they really happened. While Franco’s movie is based on a book, which provides a foundation of truth all its own, much of the entertainment value in “The Disaster Artist” lies outside of the film itself. Viewers need to be well-versed in “The Room” to fully appreciate “The Disaster Artist,” which derives its entertainment value from a self-awareness that lurks beneath every scene. Still, Franco goes great lengths to make the story feel authentic.
A lot of the responsibility to convince viewers of the film’s authenticity falls to Franco. As Tommy, he is the strange, unknowable presence at the center of both “The Disaster Artist” and “The Room,” and audiences need to believe this is a real person rather than a caricature. He’s both captivating and alienating at once. No one understands him, not even Greg, and there’s no forced exposition or even implied background to help you believe such a person could really exist. (To be fair, Wiseau’s background is a mystery to this day, but Franco doesn’t even try to solve it.)
And here is where the director makes a make-or-break choice for the movie: Rather than banish all familiar elements from his performance, he recognizes when Tommy can and can’t be relatable. Now, Tommy is never entirely understandable, but he is a real person. Franco is smart enough to recognize that most people came to know Tommy through “The Room” — and Johnny, his character in the movie, is not Tommy.
As “The Disaster Artist” progresses, you notice the separation in his performance: Franco allows himself to play into the jokes when Tommy is off-camera, and he rejects all of his comedic instincts when filming scenes from “The Room.” That allows Tommy to be truly funny in order to serve the comedy written into “The Disaster Artist.” Franco can hit a joke as Tommy, even though Tommy can’t land a punchline on camera to save his life. As Rogen’s character says in the movie, “It would be weird for Tommy to do something that’s not weird.”
Most importantly, everyone should be able to laugh along with Franco even if they won’t fully appreciate his work without seeing “The Room.” By recognizing the many layers of his character, he helps make the movie approachable. And while a close look at Wiseau’s film would make Franco’s tribute more meaningful, “The Disaster Artist” largely works because it brings us closer to Tommy while reveling in the same ingredients that have turned him into an icon.
“The Disaster Artist” premiered as a work-in-progress cut at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. A release date has not yet been set.