We love our mighty freak losers in this country — the ones who go big, bet it all, and go down in flames. Something about their chutzpah, their delusional faith in their own greatness, seems purely and gloriously American.
Except no one knows where Tommy Wiseau came from — New Orleans (as he claims), Poland (as may in fact be the case), or the Van Allen radiation belt. In 2003, Wiseau wrote, directed, and starred in “The Room,” a low-budget romantic melodrama so intensely awful that it quickly became a midnight-movie staple for a generation that had never heard of Ed Wood, the previous “worst director of all time.” And now, because this is America and failure so unique and all-encompassing — so successful — is deemed worthy of celebration, we have “The Disaster Artist,” in which Hollywood’s busiest boy James Franco directs the story of “The Room” and may possibly get an Oscar nomination for playing Wiseau.
How’s the movie? Extremely entertaining and fairly pointless, and it will probably be taken for a classic by a generation that has likewise never heard of Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994), a movie that plumbed the wayward soul of its misbegotten moviemaker to depths “The Disaster Artist” never manages to touch.
Still, you can’t deny that Franco is a fascinating doppelganger for Wiseau, his wiry body swathed in a waist-length mane of black hair, his eyes squinting as if his own fame is too bright, his accent a strange, lazy semi-European bowl of porridge. The character comes on like a heavy metal guitarist who’s the opening act for the opening act but who thinks he’s a star, and while Wiseau dismays everyone in his acting class, his maniacal reading of the “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a hit with Greg Sesteros (Dave Franco), a handsome but strenuously untalented fellow wannabe. In short order, the two have relocated to Los Angeles and are ready to hit it big.
It’s the collisions with reality that form the comic meat of “The Disaster Artist” — the agents who gently tell Wiseau he’s not the romantic lead he sees in his head but something more menacing, the crew of “The Room” that sees a possible ticket to fame get hijacked by runaway ego. Franco conveys the neediness that fuels his inscrutable hero, the man-crush Tommy gets on Greg and his insistence on being taken for a Great Artist in spite of all available evidence, but he never locates their source. Maybe he thinks that would spoil the karmic mystery of Tommy Wiseau, but it leaves the movie lacking an emotional anchor.
Instead, “The Disaster Artist” is a love letter to a freak, straddling the line between admiring and appalled. Franco stacks the cast with familiar faces, and much of the fun is in the walk-ons by Judd Apatow, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Zac Efron, and on and on, as well as the larger roles played by Ari Graynor (as Tommy’s unlucky onscreen costar Juliette Danielle), Jacki Weaver (as Juliette’s onscreen mother), Seth Rogen (as the most rebellious “Room” crew member), and Alison Brie (as Greg’s girlfriend).
They’re all having a blast, and Dave Franco comes further out of his brother’s shadow as the film’s straight man, even if the family resemblance is sometimes discombobulating from a dramatic standpoint. When all is said and done, though, “The Disaster Artist” stands mostly as a keepsake for fans of “The Room,” a brand extension that lets them have their snark and call it art, too. The end-credit split-screen sequences that pair scenes from the original film with Franco’s precise re-creations only prove he “got it right,” whatever that means.
Wiseau’s tour de schlock can only be seen on DVD or in raucous “Rocky Horror”-style public screenings, and it isn’t available for streaming, which makes sense. Watching “The Room” on your own, and struggling through the banal dialogue and non sequiturs, the dreary sets, the elevator Muzak score, and the long, cringe-inducing sex scenes in which Wiseau bares his all for our appreciation isn’t funny but sad. There’s an all-American tragedy of belonging buried deep within “The Disaster Artist,” but I’m betting the movie’s core audience wants none of it — and Franco’s too much of a showman to give it to them.
THE DISASTER ARTIST
Directed by James Franco. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie. At Boston Common. 98 minutes. R (language throughout, some sexuality/nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.