Whether you call them outsider artists or weirdos, we've all known a few people like Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic auteur behind 2003 cult classic The Room. His eccentricities, both artistic and personal, help explain why his indie drama was not just bad — like thousands of such films produced every year — but torturously, famously, profitably bad. The story of The Room embodies a neat irony of art and commerce: By embracing the "fans" who flock to mock his work, Wiseau has become a star.
And now he's being played by a bigger star in a movie about the making of his bizarre success story. Based on a memoir by The Room costar Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, and directed by James Franco — who also plays Wiseau — The Disaster Artist is certainly one of the wackiest biopics ever to court awards attention. While it's too busy chasing easy laughs to do justice to its material, it undeniably gets those laughs and then some.
Our story begins when Sestero (Dave Franco) and Wiseau, both aspiring actors, meet in a scene class. Their friendship is straight out of a Victorian novel: Sestero is a fresh-faced naïf; Wiseau a flamboyant, accented fellow who refuses to divulge his actual age, his national origin or the source of his fortune.
Neither man has talent or Hollywood connections, but Wiseau makes up for those deficiencies with the boundless confidence of a self-help guru. Soon the duo has moved to LA and embarked on the production of a film scripted, directed, produced and bankrolled by Wiseau, in which they play romantic rivals.
Franco impersonates Wiseau with ease and panache, and the scenes depicting the shooting of The Room offer plenty of in-jokes to its fans without being confusing to newcomers. Indeed, Franco and co. have devoted so much attention to re-creating "classic" moments in The Room that people who laugh their way through The Disaster Artist may come away thinking they've seen both movies.
However, Franco's affectionate tribute to the incompetence of The Room doesn't fully capture the film's darkness. Wiseau cast himself as the star of a persecution fantasy in which he and Sestero vie for the affections of an ungrateful hussy (here played by Ari Graynor) who's a misogynist cartoon.
Anger and self-pity practically bleed off the screen in The Room, but The Disaster Artist only hints at what could have inspired such animus. Rather than delve into the details of the duo's weirdly compelling bromance — in which, the memoir suggests, Sestero wasn't as clueless as he's depicted here — Franco chooses to wring bigger laughs from the making of a cultural phenomenon.
He keeps the screen bustling with cameos from the likes of Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson and Jacki Weaver, who use their considerable talents to impersonate the not-so-gifted cast and crew of The Room. It's certainly fun to watch two-time Oscar nominee Weaver recite Wiseau's laughable dialogue. But the movie never really addresses the question posed by this waggish use of professionalism to ape its opposite.
If we know enough to laugh when Wiseau starts fancying himself a modern-day James Dean, does that make us better than he is? Or do we laugh because, on some level, we relate to anyone who dares to dream that big? An actor-turned-filmmaker who's adapted William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, Franco may know something about reach exceeding grasp. But he never quite pins down the strange attraction that brings fans back to visit The Room again and again.