On paper, James Franco adapting Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell's The Disaster Artist (with him playing Tommy Wiseau, no less) is a terrible idea (and this is coming from a writer who legitimately loves Franco in all his many, oft-overreaching forms). The fact that he gave notable roles to his brother, Dave (who portrays Sestero, complete with noticeably fake facial hair), Seth Rogen (as disgruntled script supervisor Sandy Schklair), Alison Brie (Greg's girlfriend Amber), Zac Efron (infamous onscreen mugger 'Chris-R'), and a number of others in Hollywood's current top comedic crop, only led one to believe he was producing the Funny or Die rendition of Wiseau's quest to make The Room, one of the worst movies in film history. Up until this point, Franco's output as a director - ranging from his experimental remaking of lost Cruising scenes, Int. Leather Bar, to his multiple literary adaptations - has tracked as almost a pure vanity operation. In short, this was going to be a trainwreck.
Funny thing happened along the way, though: The Disaster Artist somehow turned out not just good, but flat out great. Instead of taking the aforementioned obvious route and making fun of these strange, untalented dweebs and the megalomaniacal narcissist with the bottomless bank account, Franco transforms Sestero's BTS memoir into a genuinely touching tale of two outsiders, one of which may have an unhealthy fixation on the other. Working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer), Franco's version of The Disaster Artist becomes a love letter to the very act of creation itself, regardless of the final product's reception. While that may sound corny (and to an extent, it totally is), it doesn't make the movie ring any less true. Franco's here to both welcome the weirdos, and laugh along with their numerous on set mishaps.
Now, none of the above is meant to imply that The Disaster Artist isn't funny, because it's an absolute riot. From the moment we meet Tommy in the middle of Greg's San Francisco acting class - tossing himself on the floor, writhing around and screaming in an attempt to "reveal his true self" to aghast peers - it's difficult to stop giggling at the audaciousness of the man's larger than life persona. Franco really leans into the outlandish trivia that's surrounded the making of The Room since it became a cult object via numerous midnight screenings: from the simultaneous shooting of digital and film, to Tommy's "private bathroom", to the endless well of unexplained resources Wiseau has at his disposal. Even the very nature of Wiseau himself is exploited: an oddball possessing an indefinably European accent, whose age is probably somewhere in the forties, yet never disclosed to his teenage leading man (who he creepily calls "Baby Face"). It's all there.
Everywhere he goes, Tommy elicits the same mixture of fascination and repulsion, but still owns that certain something that inspires Greg to pick up and move out to Los Angeles in order to pursue their foolish dream together. Could it be the fact that Franco's Tommy is possibly as authentic a representation of the American Dream as we've ever seen on screen? Here's a guy who came to this country, seduced by the notion of Hollywood and movie stardom. To him, our pop culture is a blessing, and all he wants to do is connect with others via a very personal work of art that he pours all of himself into. While the movie has gone on to become a "so bad its good" staple, Franco never loses sight of the fact that Wiseau is the stereotypical "Dreamer", and that maybe we shouldn't laugh at a dude with a "funny" accent, even if his personal presentation is often garish and misguided. He truly just wants to be loved. Is that so fucking wrong?
The Disaster Artist wouldn't work if Franco were playing Wiseau as a sort of sketch comedy caricature, which his take threatens to become early on. Yet over the course of his film's two-hour runtime, Franco discovers a muddled humanity at the center of the Vampire Frankenstein Man. He's a lecherous-looking probable creep who sees himself as a heart-throb whenever he peers into the mirror, never once listening to an acting coach or casting director, who tell him he'd make a killing doing parts revolving around pure villainy. But Wiseau is not going to be deterred from becoming Hollywood's next gigantic star. In fact, it becomes the sole motivating factor in his life: to prove to everyone that the marquee idol in his head belongs out in the world.
There's also a possible attraction Tommy feels toward Greg that Franco plays for a sizable amount of discomfort in certain scenes. Greg's mom (Megan Mullally) certainly gets a vibe off this pimp-looking wacko pulling up in his white Mercedes, looking to cart her naïve son off to LA. Tommy then jokingly offers to share a bed with Sestero when they first arrive at his Hollywood apartment (that he's apparently owned, but never used, for years). Whenever they go out dancing, Tommy gets bored when "Baby Face" begins talking to girls, and makes an ass out of himself by taking his multiple belts to the dance floor. After Greg and Amber hook up, Tommy comes home during the middle of a date, putting on another strange show regarding how his career is taking off and how he's got better things to do than hang with those two. It's a fine line between "jealous eighth-grade bestie" and "creepy closeted stalker" that Franco mines for maximum effect.
Franco's never been anything remotely resembling a flashy filmmaker, and The Disaster Artist is really no major step up from polished indie efforts such as In Dubious Battle in the visual department. Here, he's applying a sort of fly-on-the-wall unobtrusive camera (with the aid of Brandon Trost's reliably slick lens) that never becomes immediate enough, but allows certain scenes to play long without feeling like overt improv (until Tommy starts blowing take after take, resulting in multiple reactions to his incompetence). The introductory "talking head" interviews (with famous comedians like Keegan-Michael Key) initially promise a more verité version of this story, but Franco never fully commits, opting instead for a hybrid of jangly and dexterous filmmaking, no budget indie and big dollar studio ticket, somehow at the same time.
To be fair, Franco's recreation of the Adult Swim mainstay is stunningly slavish, right down to the basic camera movements and non-professional timing from its actors. Franco is obviously a fan (not to mention a student) of The Room, going out of his way to reproduce roughly a half-hour of Wiseau's trashterpiece. While we certainly recognize that Josh Hutcherson is playing 'Philip' and Nathan Fielder is playing 'Peter', the rest of this redux could be mistaken for the real thing, green-screened rooftop settings and all. For fans, these acts of devotion are going to be quite the treat, and for those unfamiliar with the room, a crash course in DIY aesthetics and anti-cinema grammar.
While there's certainly some condensing of facts for the sake of a dramatic narrative - Tommy basically goes from being saddened by The Room getting booed to basically embracing the "so-bad-it's-good" mentality in a single scene - that doesn't dilute the rather strong thematic throughline Franco's able to inject into his telling of The Disaster Artist. In a way, the picture could actually double as a response to the multi-hyphenate's many critics, who often roll their eyes at his endeavors (which range from obtaining Ivy League degrees to shooting Lifetime movies). Though Tommy and Greg are obviously in over their heads, they're still out there doing everything they can to live out an illogical fantasy. The Disaster Artist may be about bad art, but it's still for the biggest dreamers in the audience, encouraging them to give it all they got, and revel in the joy their work delivers. The reaction may not always be what you want, but you still made the damn thing. Nobody can take that away.