There are certain iconic rites of passage that every Los Angeleno must go through. There’s your first Pink’s hot dog, your first Angelyne sighting, and your first time seeing Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM. The billboard graced Highland Blvd. for five years, beckoning all like a siren song. Predating crowdfunding and kick-starting, this self-financed feature satiated the midnight masses at the Laemmle Sunset in the aughts. And boy was it an experience – an audience participatory event akin to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Now director/star James Franco pays tribute to the ultimate “so-bad-it’s-good” movie with THE DISASTER ARTIST. The hilarity and insanity will hook you, but the core of the film is male camaraderie and the indomitable spirit of an enigmatic ‘auteur.’
Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor when he first meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in acting class. Tommy is everything that he’s not: unique-looking, fearless and mysteriously wealthy. The two become fast friends and it’s not long before Tommy, with his inscrutable accent, convinces Greg to move to Los Angeles with him. The pair plan to pursue their dreams of becoming the next James Dean. While Greg hits the town hot, acquiring an agent (Sharon Stone) and girlfriend (Allison Brie) immediately, Tommy faces disappointment after disappointment. So Tommy comes up with a plan: to write, produce, direct and star in his own Tennessee-Williams-inspired feature, THE ROOM. And this is where the mouth of madness opens – and we, the viewer, get sucked in.
Similar to Wiseau’s THE ROOM, screenwriters Michael H. Webber and Scott Neustadter, who work from Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, bring the male friendship aspect into the foreground. You might wanna shout “male bonding” at the screen whenever you see it. At its heart, this is a tale about two underdogs trying to make it in the big city, their relentless pursuit of their dreams, and the fissures that form in their friendship. We get keen psychological insight into Wiseau, who considers himself a leading man rather than the villain type that casting directors see. Most importantly, the filmmakers take great care to respect their subjects. It’s not about mocking them, or being mean-spirited. This is clearly a celebration of their spirits and hard work.
Even if you’ve never seen THE ROOM, you’ll understand perfectly how this film achieved its cult classic status. That said, your viewing of Franco’s film would be even better if you have experienced THE ROOM, as you’ll relish all the subtleties and nuances. If the original film was ever part of your initiation to Los Angeles, then this is a must-see. But don’t fret. If you never did, you’ll still get the gist and appreciate the craft it took to make this loving homage – especially the footage recreations. The ensemble cast in the film within the film do a magnificent job, acting within the parameters of the original Denny, Lisa, psychiatrist Peter, etc. All of these roles are inspired casting. Oscar-winner Jacki Weaver’s delivery of the iconic line, “I definitely have breast cancer,” will make fans cheer – as will Zac Efron’s intense portrayal of “Chris R.” Best of all, Franco pulls off the titular role with true aplomb. He elevates it from pure mimicry to a layered performance with substance. He brings out dimension, depth and vulnerability. From Tommy’s laugh, to his look and attitude, Franco nails this role.
THE DISASTER ARTIST is bound to make you wish all your “guilty pleasure” films had companion pieces that are this celebratory, compassionate and respectful.
THE DISASTER ARTIST opens in limited release on December 1. It opens everywhere on December 8.