For all you need to know about James Franco’s rest­less, peri­patet­ic career, take a gan­der at his IMDB page. It lists, as of this writ­ing, 14 projects that are either cur­rent­ly film­ing or in pre- or post-​production. Five of those entries are for films he’s direct­ing. Earlier efforts behind the cam­era include high­fa­lutin’ adap­ta­tions of William Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING and THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Yet the one that arguably rep­re­sents the short­est dis­tance between Franco and the mate­r­i­al he’s cho­sen to direct is the low­fa­lutin’ and ter­rif­ic behind the scenes com­e­dy, THE DISASTER ARTIST.

The film chron­i­cles the mak­ing of direc­tor Tommy Wiseau’s dra­ma THE ROOM, which was released in two L.A. the­aters in July 2003 to crit­i­cal revul­sion and audi­ence indif­fer­ence. It grossed an embar­rass­ing $1,800 in its open­ing week­end and seemed des­tined for obliv­ion until word spread about a film that man­aged to reach such unimag­ined heights of inep­ti­tude that audi­ences were pack­ing into the­aters just to laugh at it. Midnight Movie cult­dom fol­lowed, a jour­ney chron­i­cled by co-​star Greg Sestero in his book, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.”

For his adap­ta­tion, Franco gifts him­self with the plum lead role, and one can see why a man of large, if curi­ous, cre­ative appetites, would be drawn to an odd­ball like Tommy Wiseau. Franco, a ver­sa­tile, mid­dleweight per­former, is most mem­o­rable when play­ing intense, if not lurid, char­ac­ters. His all-​in per­for­mance as Alien in Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS repped a career best, until along came Wiseau, who, quite pos­si­bly, is an actu­al alien. Much of the car crash appeal of THE ROOM is feast­ing our eyes and ears upon this mys­ti­fy­ing Euro-​creature in ill-​fitting clothes who looks like a cross between Gene Simmons and Frankenstein’s mon­ster. His long, dyed, black hair frames a slight­ly Neanderthal face that spews English so butchered it’s like he’s speak­ing in every bad American accent simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Maybe his mis­sion to become famous is so all-​encompassing that he sim­ply doesn’t have time for def­i­nite or indef­i­nite articles.

Franco rec­og­nizes a fel­low rest­less dream­er so he nev­er looks down on Wiseau or holds him up for ridicule. Yet he still man­ages to be so fun­ny he’ll tear you apart (I’ll hold for your chuck­le of acknowl­edg­ment) and he doesn’t even need to take the char­ac­ter to extremes to get there. Wiseau real­ly is that odd. He’s also obliv­i­ous to the fact that he’s a writer, direc­tor and actor who can nei­ther write, direct nor act. 

We meet Tommy at a San Francisco act­ing class where he gives a con­vul­sive, high-​decibel read­ing of the Stella scene from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Afterwards, he befriends a fel­low act­ing stu­dent, the inhib­it­ed Greg (Franco’s broth­er, Dave, light­weight and aw-​shucks). During a vis­it to the park, Greg is con­vinced by his strange and com­pelling new friend to join him in pur­su­ing star­dom in Los Angeles (where, accord­ing to Wiseau, every­body want to be star.”) Greg should have smelled trou­ble, right there in the park, when Tommy clum­si­ly toss­es Greg a foot­ball and, as the sad ball wob­bles towards its tar­get, he tri­umphant­ly declares it a touch­down. Wiseau’s def­i­n­i­tion of suc­cess, as it hap­pens, is unique­ly his own.

As befit­ting its direc­tor, THE DISASTER ARTIST unspools with an easy ener­gy that, if not espe­cial­ly pol­ished, is always engag­ing. But screen­writ­ers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the won­der­ful 500 DAYS OF SUMMER) can’t ful­ly col­or in the story’s bold out­lines. It’s hard to find the cen­ter of a char­ac­ter try­ing so hard to hide his age, his ori­gins and where he achieved the finan­cial means to bankroll a $6 mil­lion film. 

There’s inter­est in treat­ing Wiseau like more than a Vegas buf­fet of man­gled dialect and out­ra­geous behav­ior but the lure of his comedic pos­si­bil­i­ties proves too tempt­ing. Ditto Tommy’s rela­tion­ship with Greg, which only strafes dark­er ter­ri­to­ry, like Tommy’s pos­si­ble homo­erot­ic inter­est in his cre­ative part­ner and the jeal­ous rage that results when Greg achieves any career or per­son­al success. 

The film is mod­est­ly told through Greg’s point of view and he’s a weak audi­ence sur­ro­gate. One is tempt­ed to think back upon the cen­tral pair­ing from 1988’s RAIN MAN: Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), the autis­tic savant who loves The People’s Court,” was nev­er going to change. His pur­pose in the film was to change his broth­er, Charlie (Tom Cruise) and make him a bet­ter per­son. For Tommy and Greg’s rela­tion­ship to reach such bud­dy film heights proves too much to hope for. It most­ly surfs along gid­di­ly as a back­hand­ed trib­ute to ambi­tious ama­teurs every­where and an intro­duc­tion to Wiseau’s sin­gu­lar and numer­ous artis­tic failings.

Those fail­ures are, at first, dumb­found­ing then mad­den­ing then down­right dan­ger­ous to the cast and crew of THE ROOM (which includes Franco bud­dy Seth Rogen and Jacki Weaver). In pre-​production, Tommy decides to shoot the film in both 35mm and dig­i­tal because he doesn’t know the dif­fer­ence between the two and, besides, such excess means he must be cre­at­ing art. He insists on shoot­ing an alley scene on a sound­stage despite there being an actu­al alley 50 feet away because it’s real Hollywood movie”. As shoot­ing plods along, Franco doesn’t shy away from Tommy’s inse­cu­ri­ties. He lash­es out when crewmem­bers don’t get his vision” or want water on a sti­fling­ly hot set. Franco’s appre­ci­a­tion for Tommy’s pas­sion does not extend to mak­ing excus­es for his bad behav­ior and the film is bet­ter for it.

Franco and DP Brandon Trost shoot both insid­er and icon­ic L.A. loca­tions like Ernie’s Mexican restau­rant and Canter’s deli. The street where Tommy rents his pied-​à-​terre will look famil­iar to any Hollywood club­go­er who parked on a side street. It shim­mers at night when hopes are high. When things are falling apart, we get the same shot in flat day­time light­ing that denudes the street, and the duo’s search for star­dom, of all its glam­our. Franco shot the pre­mière at The Crest the­ater in Westwood, where audi­ences ini­tial­ly howl­ing at Tommy’s incom­pe­tent dra­ma end up applaud­ing one of the cinema’s great come­dies. As Wiseau takes the stage to bask in the crowd’s adu­la­tion, we’re remind­ed that Tommy’s def­i­n­i­tion of suc­cess, as always, is unique­ly his own.

There is some­thing a bit charm­ing about a tal­ent­less Hollywood roman­tic, as earnest as he is igno­rant, pur­su­ing his dream despite pos­sess­ing such a rudi­men­ta­ry notion of what con­sti­tutes filmed art. To Tommy, the loud­er the per­for­mance, the more artis­tic it is. Hearing James Dean shriek, You’re tear­ing me apart!” in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE is Tommy’s water­shed moment, not for the youth­ful angst Dean con­veyed but because Dean said it very loud­ly, which means it must be good. These rays of insight into the mind of a deter­mined, delu­sion­al wannabe give the film a lift. Otherwise, THE DISASTER ARTIST is a breezy and occa­sion­al­ly gut-​busting sto­ry of a clue­less, striv­ing indus­try hope­ful whose desire for suc­cess is in inverse pro­por­tion to the tools he pos­sess­es to achieve it. He’d have been a great suc­cess on real­i­ty TV.

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