It is easy to make fun of Tommy Wiseau.
After all, the movie that launched him into infamy is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, and part of what makes The Room so potently insane is the onscreen work by Wiseau. Yes, he’s an incompetent director, and yes, his script reads like someone threw Tennessee Williams plays into a shredder, taped them together again randomly, then translated the result from English to Cantonese and then back into English. But as an actor, that’s where he really blooms in all his curdled glory. Tommy Wiseau is transcendently awful, and you can’t take your eyes off of him. It’s like looking at a natural disaster. You’re sure someone’s going to get hurt, but the spectacle of it all demands your attention.
For those who have missed the last decade’s slow embrace of Tommy Wiseau by the mainstream, he is a writer/actor/director who self-funded The Room, a film designed as a showcase for himself and his closest friend, Greg Sestero. The movie was quickly embraced as a cult oddity, and as that cult has grown over the past decade, it has erupted into a full-on mainstream success. Here in Los Angeles, it was a word-of-mouth thing, and you had to make the pilgrimage to see the film if you expected to be in on the joke. After all, bad movies exist primarily so we can rip on them… right?
Only that’s not really the appeal of these kinds of films, at least not for me. When you watch something like The Room, you’re looking at something that is 100% personal, and while it may not work by any of the standards of conventional filmmaking or storytelling, it is incredibly revealing. It is outsider art, made beyond any kind of commercial consideration. Just as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood made a case that Wood’s voice was a significant one and that his films were a genuine reflection of who he was, made with as much skill as he could muster, The Disaster Artist manages to wring every possible laugh out of the telling of Wiseau’s story without ever tipping into simple, ugly mockery.
James Franco has always struck me as a filmmaker gifted with determination more than raw storytelling ability. His films are obviously sincere and deeply felt on his part, but they often struck me as less than fully formed. Small wonder. The person we call James Franco is obviously an army of exact duplicates created in a lab somewhere; no one has enough hours in a day to do all the things that James Franco is alleged to have done. With The Disaster Artist, he finally pulls everything together, and it seems like a delightful bit of synchronicity that it happened while making a film about the making of a film that was a total shambles, start to finish.
While Franco doesn’t look like Wiseau at all, I found that from about ten minutes into his performance, I couldn’t remember the real Wiseau anymore. Franco is so good at capturing the weird nuances of all the oddities that make up Wiseau that you do eventually get past the weird accent, as well as the mumbling and the screaming. Tommy is a self-made mystery from the moment he first meets Greg (Dave Franco) in acting class. He claims to be around the same age as Greg. He claims to be from New Orleans. He clearly has enough money to do whatever he wants to do, and from the moment he starts hanging out with Greg, what he wants is to be famous, and to share that fame with Greg. I thought I’d find it distracting to have the two Francos side by side playing these characters, but if anything, I find it moving watching them play out the strange arc of this friendship. Their natural ease with one another allows them to try some big, risky things as performers, and it pays off in an intimacy that shorthands the years of friendship between Greg and Tommy. It also helps that Franco has surrounded himself with people who he’s worked with before, and people who are used to working in the loose, improvisational style that has become a big part of Franco’s overall tool box.
They’re walking a weird line here, too, because while this is a movie that has to work on its own, regardless of how familiar the audience is with The Room, it is built around some major recreations of that film’s singular aesthetic. Brandon Trost, one of the cinematographers whose work I most admire right now, does a terrific job of pulling off the trick, and the film has a fun, bright pop sensibility overall. And while this is a comedy in tone, and the film certainly has fun with the whirlwind personality that is Tommy Wiseau, it never resorts to the easy joke. There’s an authentic depth of feeling here, and Tommy is treated with respect as a character, even if it doesn’t buy into any of the mythology that Tommy has created around himself. There is a poignancy to the way Tommy chases his dream, and to the way he enables Greg to follow his own, and I suspect there are plenty of people who work in the creative arts who have indulged in some specific editing of their own biographies. That’s what Hollywood offers to many people, a dream of reinvention, and Tommy had enough money to make enough people agree to his version of reality.
Everything about The Disaster Artist feels like the right choice, and it’s almost shocking how well it plays as pure entertainment, and how much it manages to make you care about this truly bizarre outsider. Make sure you stay until the very end of the film for a scene where Franco’s Tommy faces down the real thing. It’s the most self-aware moment in a very self-aware movie, and I can’t believe anything this wink-wink nudge-nudge actually delivers an emotional punch as satisfying as this one.
Running time: 105 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic