Notoriously bad filmmakers can be great subjects, it would seem, for their more talented colleagues. Tim Burton made what remains his best picture with “Ed Wood,” in which Johnny Depp gave an extraordinary performance as the man responsible for, among others, the hilarious “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959), often described as the worst picture ever made. Now James Franco is both director and star of “The Disaster Artist,” in which he plays Tommy Wiseau, the would-be auteur behind the more recent camp anti-classic, 2003’s “The Room,” which has become today’s go-to crowd-experience midnight movie. And while it doesn’t match the brilliance of “Ed Wood,” it’s a mightily enjoyable, and equally affectionate, tribute to a misguided moviemaker.
As those who are devotees of le bad cinema will tell you, an intentionally lousy picture can never make the pantheon. The real gems of the lot are those movies made with seriousness and dedication by people who believed they had something to say, and tried their best to say it; what they lacked was talent. Ed Wood was such a person, driven to make movies but simply incapable of producing anything but schlock—and equally unable to recognize it as such. But as Burton’s film argued, he had a real love of movies.
Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) was, it seems, cut from the same cloth, though his initial desire was to be an actor of renown. A long-haired, aging fanatic with an impenetrable accent and—it turned out—a seemingly inexhaustible bank account, his sheer bravado onstage entranced young Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, also an aspiring actor, at a San Francisco drama workshop (overseen by Melanie Griffith, one of the many stars who pop up for cameos). Before long the two struck up a strange friendship, the uninhibited Wiseau prodding the reticent, somewhat dim Sestero to let loose and take some risks.
The biggest one is a decision to move to Los Angeles to take on the movie business head-on. Wiseau, it happens, has another apartment there, and the duo moves into it. But things do not go well. Though Sestero gets an agent, his auditions yield no jobs of consequence, while Wiseau’s grandiose leading-man ambitions are thwarted by his unusual physique and voice, as well as his distinctly unnerving presence. (One observer describes him as “menacing.”) So he decides to write and produce a movie for himself and Greg to star in, a torrid melodrama about a man whose girlfriend betrays him with his best friend until he can stand it no longer. And although he hires pros as his crew—most notably a script supervisor played by an increasingly agitated Seth Rogen—the shoot does not go smoothly, with Wiseau continuously muffing lines and cues in the lead role while garbling the dialogue he can remember in that odd accent (the result, he explains absurdly, of growing up in New Orleans).
Things deteriorate further after Greg acquires a girlfriend (Alison Brie) and the two decide to move into a place of their own. To Tommy that’s a betrayal every bit as unforgivable as the one his character suffers in the script, and he takes it out on Sestero by refusing to accommodate his request to shift the shooting schedule to let him take a real role (offered by Bryan Cranston, playing himself). Yet despite all the setbacks, the movie is eventually completed, and Wiseau, Sestero and the rest of the cast and crew reunite for a lavish premiere that Tommy arranges for the self-distributed opus, which turns out rather differently from what Tommy was hoping for, even expecting, but serves as the start of his movie’s climb to a notoriety that even he will eventually claim what was his goal all along.
As director and star James Franco handles this peculiar story with admirable generosity, treating Wiseau as an oddball, but one you can still respect if only for his willingness to put himself out there rather than simply settle for mediocrity (and whatever you say about “The Room,” it’s not just blandly mediocre). Younger brother Dave brings a boyishness to Sestero that, similarly, doesn’t degenerate into naïve buffoonery. Brie and Ari Graynor, as the female star of “The Room,” add further tang to the mix, and Rogen’s brand of slacker bluster has never been more apt. One can also enjoy the parade of notables Franco lured into putting in appearances, however brief: along with Griffith and Cranston, watch for Sharon Stone, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Zoey Deutsch, Josh Hutcherson, Judd Apatow, Megan Mullaly, Hannibal Burress, Jerrod Carmichael, Bob Odenkirk, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Zach Braff, among others. The technical credits—Chris L. Spellman’s production design, Stacey Schroeder’s editing–are fine, and the concluding side-by-side comparisons of original clips from Wiseau’s masterwork and Franco’s recreations of them point up the degree of fidelity—or perhaps fanaticism is a better word—that he lavished on the project.
Some will complain that “The Disaster Artist” doesn’t exert much effort trying to explain Wiseau’s devotion to his grand project, other than as a means of realizing his dreams and cementing his relationship with young Greg. But psychoanalysis isn’t really what one should expect here; as a portrait of sheer movie madness in action, Franco’s picture, born of an obsessiveness not unlike Wiseau’s, is just as funny as “The Room” (though intentionally so), and oddly touching as well.