Director James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is enormously proficient as a comedy – in terms of laughs out loud, it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years – while also displaying epic chops as a faithful adaptation of an intriguing memoir, an odd-couple buddy movie, a Tale of Hollywood, and a meditation on ambition. It may very well be the most purely entertaining film of the year; its market appeal, however, may be limited to the (not tiny) amount of people who have delighted in the awful motion picture called The Room.
That film has played worldwide midnight screenings for over a decade now, billed and enjoyed as one of the worst films of all time. It certainly is terrible, but the reason for its enduring appeal is that it truly hits that sweet spot of being “so bad it’s good.” It’s thoroughly entertaining in its awfulness from start to finish, and its dreadfully thin characters, terrible green-screen location effects, dismal plot and abysmal dialogue have become beloved. It gets better with repeat viewing. It is unique; it has a special kind of magic.
It is now astonishing that one of the lead actors in The Room wrote a book about its making, which has now resulted in possibly the best film of 2017 – but that’s show biz! Greg Sestero’s book, co-authored with Tom Bissell, was a very decent read and lifted the lid on what a bizarre and mysterious creature Tommy Wiseau, the artistic mastermind of The Room, truly was. The film version is far superior to the book, identifying within it the potential for comedy and pathos, both of which are well and truly – magnificently – achieved.
James Franco plays Wiseau – it’s one of the performances of the year – and his brother Dave plays Sestero. You get over the fact that you’re watching brothers not play brothers immediately, for James’ physically transformative performance is utterly convincing. Wiseau himself is so strange and so ludicrous that he would be easy to caricature, but James’ brilliance is in – for an entire movie – riding the line between incredibly funny and honestly human. We don’t get a caricature but a genuine portrayal of a genuinely outrageous person. Indeed, there are scenes of Wiseau at his worst – paranoid, infantile and disrespectful – that have dark dramatic heft.
The film is loaded with excellent supporting actors, but mention must be made of Seth Rogan as The Room’s unfortunate script supervisor who unwittingly becomes a de-facto director of Wiseau. Rogan is good at playing real people with real comedy – he was excellent as Steve Wozniak – and he scores a goal with every single one of his lines here.
Shot on what appears to be handheld 16mm (cinematographer Brandon Trost), the film looks great and has an easy-going propulsion. Franco doesn’t waste time going down meta rabbit holes; the true story – and the existence of this film – are meta enough. Nor does he ever have a gag that doesn’t feel true to the world of the film (which is, essentially, the world of realism rather than broad comedy, slapstick or even satire). This is absolutely a passionate and honestly motivated biographical adaptation, not a piss-take. And it is never anything other than completely entertaining. The only question is – and I don’t know the answer – how it would play if you hadn’t seen The Room. That film is available, with many cinemas around the world playing it in preparation for, or in conjunction with, this one. So if you haven’t seen it, do yourself two favours – see The Room, then see The Disaster Artist. You’re in for some serious fun.