A film like The Disaster Artist has to walk a fine line. In telling its completely ridiculous true story, it has to be exceptionally silly and funny, but stop short of feeling exploitative of its highly eccentric subject. It’s a balance that James Franco’s film strikes seemingly effortlessly, an utterly hilarious romp through one of the oddest moments in movie history that’s also heartfelt and empathetic enough to be enormously uplifting. Franco clearly feels a sort of kinship with the mysterious ‘auteur’ Tommy Wiseau (who Franco plays on top of directing and producing), and so his film never feels uncomfortably mean-spirited.
At this point, we know that Wiseau got his happy ending, becoming a beloved cult star in Hollywood for his transcendentally awful masterpiece The Room, a $6 million disaster that has now managed to turn a profit thanks to sold-out midnight screenings. That Wiseau himself is now in on the joke is integral to how well The Disaster Artist works, especially as he has no self-awareness for the vast majority of the story. We first meet him, his heavy hair and unplaceable accent making him as immediately iconic and recognisable as any superhero, giving a singularly terrible rendition of the ‘Stella!’ scene from Streetcar.
It’s here that he meets his future The Room co-star Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), as stilted and embarrassed as Wiseau is overconfidently melodramatic. Greg is drawn to Tommy, his unabashed weirdness lending him a magnetism, and the pair of them move to Los Angeles to make their fortunes. The Disaster Artist can’t, and doesn’t, answer the questions of when and where Wiseau was born or how he had a bottomless well of money to draw from, instead focussing on the maddening and wildly entertaining ride of the creation of The Room from Greg’s point of view.
James Franco is absolutely phenomenal as Wiseau, doing a perfect physical and vocal impression while digging deeper into what makes the man tick. He’s relentlessly hilarious and occasionally very moving. It’s a hypnotising performance, the comedic and emotional cornerstone of 2017’s funniest film, one that should by all rights be a frontrunner throughout the awards season (and is surely a shoo-in for the Best Comedic Actor prize at the Golden Globes). Around him and his brother, who’s solid but somewhat outshone, Franco has assembled a predictably excellent supporting cast, all of whom get at least one standout moment or joke from Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber’s sublime script.
It’s a huge step up for the writing duo, who have thus far been behind some decent teen movies and the mundane Our Souls At Night for Netflix, the first film to make me ache with laughter since The Nice Guys all the way back in June 2016. Outside of the Francos, Seth Rogen gets the meatiest role as script supervisor Sandy and Josh Hutcherson steals every scene he’s in with a staggeringly bad haircut that, alongside Wiseau’s disconcerting laugh, is the film’s best running gag. Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, and Jacki Weaver are given more sincere and fleeting roles, but still get the chance to be nicely silly.
Of course, this being a Franco production about the most highly-regarded trash film of all time, there’s a litany of cameos, from new comedy heroes like Nathan Fielder and Joe Mande all the way to Hollywood’s biggest hitters like JJ Abrams, and they’re always a heap of fun. Importantly, Franco, Neustadter, and Weber never forget the heart of the story. Wiseau was an impossibly deluded, but also mostly well-meaning man, and though we’re encouraged to cackle at him, the film takes great pains to remind us that he was a person who truly believed in his creative vision that ended up being thrown back in his face.
In a lesser film, Wiseau would be treated as something of a circus freak, as the vampire or Frankenstein’s Monster that people keep suggesting he play. Instead, The Disaster Artist roots its non-stop laughs in empathy and warmth for the man, making for a genuinely brilliant feel-good movie experience. It does help somewhat if you’re familiar with The Room itself, especially as they recreate its most infamously atrocious scenes, but that’s absolutely not a prerequisite to see and love this.