If it's true that nothing succeeds like success, it stands to reason that something succeeds like failure. The movies have produced some truly terrible specimens, but perhaps none so successful as "The Room," Tommy Wiseau's 2003 independent film that swiftly became notorious as one of the worst films ever made and, thereby, a cult "midnight movie" sensation. With "The Disaster Artist," Palo Alto-raised actor-director James Franco tells the uproarious behind-the-scenes story of "The Room," with elaborate recreations of "The Room" and its enigmatic maker.
"The Disaster Artist" takes the perspective of aspiring young actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, James' brother) on the weirdness that is Wiseau (James Franco). Working from Sestero's memoir (with Tom Bissell) "The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside 'The Room,' the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made," screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ("(500) Days of Summer") lean into the bromance of Greg and Tommy, beginning with a "meet cute" in a San Francisco acting class. Drawn to Wiseau's fearless ambition and exotic cluelessness, Sestero hitches his star to Wiseau's, and the two move to L.A. together as roomies pursuing the same dream.
The problem with this -- that Wiseau is a wildly weird individual -- turns into the solution. Mysteriously wealthy, Wiseau decides to bankroll his own independent film, which he will write, direct and star in opposite Sestero. The rest is history, as Wiseau cluelessly bangs out a melodramatic script and begins overcompensating for his total lack of experience by overspending: buying equipment he should be renting, simultaneously shooting on both film and digital HD, and building unnecessary sets. Before "The Room" could become a cult film, Wiseau had to join the cult of the auteur, positioning himself as an eccentric genius whose bizarre choices ought not to be questioned.
Rather than answering any of these questions, "The Disaster Artist" keeps them ever-central to its comedy, which plays out less like a true story and more like a Judd Apatow movie (appropriately, that producer-director makes a cameo). Does Wiseau expect more from this bromance, given his jealousy of Greg's new girlfriend? How old is he, and where did he acquire that Eastern European accent? For that matter, where did he acquire his money?
Franco refuses to do any more than tease these questions, for to answer them would be to ruin the magic of "The Room." Instead, we're invited to infer why Wiseau became so elusive and ambitious in the first place: a lifetime of ridicule. There's real hurt there and in Wiseau's uneasy ongoing success precisely because he is a joke. It's a hurt that "The Disaster Artist" grazes but never fully reckons with for fear of blunting the comedy of schadenfreude. Likewise, the movie's awkward laughs suddenly darken when Wiseau turns monstrous on the set, but all is forgotten and forgiven by the more or less happy ending, chased with a post-credits appearance by the actual Wiseau.
Like the hilariously inept melodrama of "The Room" itself, Tommy Wiseau offers Franco a goldmine of oddities. His performance mostly qualifies as a collection of quirks: that accent, with its terrible diction and absurd claim of New Orleans origin; the indiscriminate age, the dead eyes, emotional disconnect, and side brushes of his jet-black mane. It only takes a few minutes of Franco's Wiseau for him to tee up one of the film's funniest lines, when Tommy offhandedly tells Greg, "Don't be weird."