“What do you think?” asks Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), the pale, peculiarly dressed, raven-haired man of ambiguous age and accent at the center of the movie The Disaster Artist. “Am I villain?” The friend he’s asking, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), has been roped into co-starring in Wiseau’s directorial debut film The Room, and might be forgiven for answering in the affirmative. Wiseau certainly has a touch of the night about him. He’s usually wearing wraparound sunglasses, his hair is draped over his shoulders with medieval flair, and his vaguely Eastern European speech patterns could be described as Dracula-esque.
The first part of The Disaster Artist follows Wiseau and Sestero trying to hack it in Hollywood for a while with no luck. At one acting class, a teacher suggests Wiseau go out for more nefarious roles that better suit his look. “I’m trying to give you a shortcut,” the teacher insists. But Wiseau rejects him (and all the classmates that begin to laugh at him), yelling, “I hero, you all villain!” Wiseau—both James Franco’s character and the real-life man—went on to channel that frustration, and millions of dollars of his own money, into making an independent film that’s now known as one of the “best bad movies” ever. Considered a form of outsider art, 2003’s The Room is a mainstay of midnight film screenings around the world, inspiring a massive cult following devoted to its distinctive awfulness.
James Franco, who directed and stars in The Disaster Artist—and who himself is no stranger to critical revilement—has found a special muse in Wiseau. Here is a villain, not just in appearance, but also for the myriad ways he bullied and exasperated people on the set of The Room (as documented in Sestero’s book on the making of the film, also called The Disaster Artist). Wiseau’s opus is a confusing tale that feels like an angry screed against a world he thinks has wronged him. But he still fits the Hollywood narrative of the hero—a man who kept fighting to make his art even as the industry pushed him away, and who created a piece of entertainment so singular and adored that it may never be forgotten.
How many other Hollywood “heroes” might think of themselves similarly, even as they annoyed and alienated their friends and co-workers to achieve their dreams? How much stubbornness and arrogance is essential to the creation of art—even a work as “objectively” bad as The Room, which violates almost every basic law of visual storytelling? These are the questions James Franco picks at in The Disaster Artist, questions that helped him make one of the most compelling and knowingly funny portrayals of the moviemaking process in recent memory.
Of course, the director has plenty of great material to work with. Sestero’s book (co-written with Tom Bissell) has been adapted into a pithy, clever screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer). The film spends its first half on Wiseau and Sestero’s curious friendship, and its second on the weird, tortured production and release of The Room. To bring the latter half of The Disaster Artist to life, James Franco has recruited a familiar coterie of collaborators he’s worked with on Judd Apatow projects, including Apatow himself and Seth Rogen. Other stars like Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron make almost every scene seem like a celebrity-cameo event.
The real Wiseau is intriguing for more than just his mysterious, vampiric persona. As The Disaster Artist (both the book and the movie) details, he made all sorts of bizarre, incompetent decisions, like shooting his movie on 35-millimeter and digital film simultaneously at prohibitive expense, building elaborate and pricey sets for locations he could have filmed on for free, and firing crew members without cause at the drop of a hat. James Franco painstakingly re-creates all the strange mistakes Wiseau made, mimicking the amateurish look and sound of The Room, and scenes are identical enough to stand up to actual side-by-side comparison over the movie’s end credits.
It’s all hilarious to watch, and James Franco knows Wiseau is a figure of fun for the film while Sestero, played with well-meaning sweetness by his brother Dave, is the audience surrogate. But the director understands something else—Wiseau is a star in the truest sense of the word, someone you can’t take your eyes off whenever he appears. Wiseau’s odd appeal is the only reason anything in The Disaster Artist is remotely believable, even though it’s based on a true story. James Franco is magnetic in the role, so committed to precisely replicating Wiseau’s unique presence, that you understand why so many people went along for the ride with him.
In many ways, Wiseau isn’t exactly a conventional hero. His relationship with Sestero (who lived as his roommate in Wiseau’s L.A. bachelor pad) is borderline creepy at times, with Wiseau reacting negatively to any sign that his much younger friend might not need his support as much anymore. And The Room itself, an absurd drama about a man (played by Wiseau) who is betrayed by his fiancée and his best friend (played by Sestero) and then kills himself, seems reflective of that dark jealousy.
And yet Wiseau retains a hypnotic charm. He can be generous and kind, and is unwilling to participate in social niceties or to let Hollywood force him into a box. That bold spirit is something James Franco is obviously drawn to, and it’s what makes his performance sing with genuine love, even as his character becomes truly unhinged on set. Fans of The Room will find much to love here, but even if you’ve never heard of it, The Disaster Artist should delight. Franco’s movie is ultimately a chronicle of the genesis of great art—namely a work even its creator didn’t fully understand, and whose popularity few could have ever imagined.