Watching The Disaster Artist is at times, a downright surreal experience. Few “fans” of The Room would have ever imagined that one day, James Franco would adapt the story behind the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and take the trouble to portray Tommy Wiseau himself.
For The Room is the kind of film you watch ironically, with film-geek friends (preferably intoxicated), an unintentional comedy that will make you belly-laugh from the incredible ineptitude of every single aspect of production. But Franco has overseen a surprisingly faithful recreation, and provides a fascinating look at the friendship between Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero.
The only problem is, you can’t laugh at someone who knows they are funny – you laugh with them. A phenomenon like The Room, the singular vision of the world’s least self-aware human being, cannot be recreated intentionally. There’s an important difference between a sincerely terrible film, and an intentionally bad movie like Sharknado; there’s simply no substitute for genuine earnestness, no matter how accurately you try to replicate it. While most of the comedy scenes fell flat to me, the story behind the making of The Room is genuinely interesting, and the narrative offers a surprisingly optimistic message.
Where The Disaster Artist shines is the story behind the scenes, the unlikely duo behind the film, rather than the many, many references to the film itself. But Franco does a stellar job portraying the peculiar Wiseau; he doesn’t resort to caricaturing the man as one might expect, but humanizes the often-mocked figure.
His first appearance, however, is rather unsettling. This is obviously famous Hollywood actor James Franco dressed up like Tommy Wiseau, like a cheap Halloween costume. But as the film continues, you somehow forget Franco is in there. He disappears into the role, capturing the unique eccentricity of Wiseau, the odd mannerisms and bizarre accent with remarkable accuracy. It really is an impressive performance, of someone who genuinely unhinged, someone who isn’t quite seeing reality, but nonetheless, understands when he’s being ridiculed.
Their odd partnership, impulsive move to L.A. and doomed pursuit of a career in Hollywood results in Tommy boldly taking his destiny into his own hands, and he certainly makes an impact, even if he doesn’t get the reaction he intended. He’s almost like a real-life version of Forrest Gump, “succeeding” despite the impossibly vast odds stacked against him.
Wiseau’s tale makes self-awareness seem less like a virtue and more of an obstacle, standing firmly in the way of success. A boatload of suspiciously-sourced money certainly helps him realize his dream. But at heart, this is a film about an eccentric who pushes against societal expectations, somebody who is never frightened to be himself, even when, perhaps, he should be.
Whether The Disaster Artist will enjoy the same success is another matter. It’s entertaining, if framed and cut a touch manically. Franco the director doesn’t always give Franco the actor the space for his Peter Sellers-like performance to breathe, and some of the tastiest gags fail to land – Tommy building an alleyway set that’s identical in every detail to an actual alley not 20 metres away, or erecting a billboard in Hollywood advertising The Room, complete with “RSVP” and his home phone number.