The Disaster Artist is a biopic about a deluded filmmaker who made a terrible movie. The Room, written and directed by Tommy Wiseau, is famously the Citizen Kane of trash cinema, a film of cringingly bad writing, terrible performances, bad production values, interminably awkward sex scenes, and a host of other creative decisions that can be generously described as bizarre. Wiseau and his film both make easy targets for mockery and derision. But The Disaster Artist’s secret is that it admires both the filmmaker and his creation. The film asks us to laugh at Wiseau and the truly horrible film he made—but its mockery is leavened with genuine respect and even, occasionally, love.
That love is evident from the prologue, in which a parade of Hollywood luminaries from JJ Abrams to Kevin Smith to Keegan Michael Key wax poetic about the glorious insanity and inanity of The Room. Adam Scott is one of the most enthusiastic of all, declaring with apparent sincerity that Wiseau’s film is more memorable than whatever won Best Picture 10 years ago. (The Oscar-winning film hitting theaters a decade ago was No Country for Old Men, which is probably not the best example, but you still get the point.) The film largely seems to share this perspective: Yes, it says, The Room is very very bad, but it is also the singular product of one man’s dogged creative vision, his complete lack of talent notwithstanding. The Room is a masterpiece, of sorts. It is, in its own way, sublime.
If The Disaster Artist does take Wiseau and The Room seriously, that’s probably due to James Franco, who directs and also stars as Wiseau himself. The two men have more in common than you might think. Like Wiseau, Franco has a penchant for going for broke creatively, occasionally trying things that seem foolish or worthy of mockery. He’s a genuinely great modern actor with a handful of great roles to his name—but he also got his MFA in creative writing and published a collection of short stories, and directed a pair of tepidly-received Faulkner adaptations. If Franco feels an affinity with someone like Tommy Wiseau—and I think he does—it’s because he understands the folly inherent in any creative endeavor. Wiseau may be delusional, but it takes a kind of delusion to undertake any act of creativity. When Franco’s Wiseau tells a dubious acting partner, “I just go for it,” both men seem to be speaking at the same time.
You can see Franco’s grudging admiration for Wiseau in the way he first presents the character, filming himself from behind as Wiseau takes the stage at an acting class, like some hulking man of mystery. When Wiseau launches into an epic, scenery-chewing rendition of the “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, we laugh along with the other students in a kind of awe: he’s so terrible, yet he’s terrible in an interesting, impossible-to-look-away from way.
Wiseau’s go-for-broke performance attracts the attention of Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), an aspiring actor who wishes he could be as daring as Tommy. They practice scenes together, they bond over a viewing of Rebel Without a Cause (Dean’s delivery of “You’re tearing me apart!” garners laughs for its similarity to a notorious line reading from The Room), and ultimately they go to Los Angeles together to try to make it in the movie business. Their LA story follows the conventional beats—agents, bad auditions, yearning for a big break—with the key difference that Tommy is a terrible actor, and our knowledge that both Tommy and Greg are destined not for movie greatness, but for something much different.
Eventually Tommy writes The Room and asks Greg to star with him. It’s here that the movie starts becoming really fun, as the Franco brothers are joined by a troupe of well-known stars and comedians giving cameos as the cast and crew of the movie. Trash cinema aficionados will be particularly happy to see Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukis, the hosts of a podcast about terrible movies called How Did This Get Made? In fact, the latter half of the movie is a bit like an episode of the podcast, dwelling on The Room’s more ridiculous scenes (“Oh hai Mark”) and the outlandish details of its production (why would Tommy pay to shoot the film in both 35mm and digital?).
At times the film plays a bit like a mystery, echoing the question implicit in the name of Scheer, Raphael, and Mantzoukis’s podcast: how did this get made? How does something like The Room come to exist in the world? A number of questions cluster around Wiseau, who is notoriously cagey about his origins in real life. How old is he? What country is he from? Where does he get his money? And most vexing, why the hell would he make this film? Did he know it was terrible at the time? Was he misguided, deluded, or borderline insane? The Room is a catalogue of grievances, the story of a perfect man with a perfect life who is elaborately betrayed by his fiancé and best friend. What happened to Tommy that he’d make such a film, bad or not?
In some ways, though, Greg and the other actors on the film are more mysterious. It’s never entirely clear what Greg gets out of his friendship with Tommy, or what reasons he of all people would have to think that Tommy was capable of directing a decent film. At one point Greg asks another actress in The Room, why do you do it. She answers, “The worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else.” Tommy’s not the only one possessed by a creative delusion. He couldn’t have made The Room without the collaboration of others, each of whom must have had their own reasons for participating in a film that they knew, on some level, was going to be awful. Creativity is always a folly, the film seems to be suggesting—a glorious folly that is always praiseworthy, regardless of the results.
Whether those results are merely terrible or simultaneously terrible and sublime is a question each must answer for themselves. As for The Disaster Artist? This particular folly is worthwhile—heartfelt, funny, and entertaining from start to finish. Don’t miss it.