Director, producer, actor – James Franco is firing on all creative cylinders in The Disaster Artist, and it's telling that this restlessly inventive star (his critics are always bitching that Franco tries to do too much) is giving everything he has to a movie about … the worst filmmaker of the 21st century. We're talking about Tommy Wiseau, whose 2003 feature The Room made him the spiritual heir to Golden Turkey hall-of-famer Ed Wood. The cross-dressing Wood was dead when Tim Burton made his 1994 tribute to the joy of making movies, no matter how crappy the result; Wiseau is alive and kicking at any perceived slight. But that didn't stop Franco – who stayed in character as the Room creator while directing the film – from forging ahead and adding his own sense of the psychological bruises that accompany failure.
The film starts in San Francisco, where Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, a.k.a. James' kid brother) meets his future director/costar at an acting class. The teacher (Melanie Griffith, in one of the movie's many celebrity cameos) cringes when Wiseau – he of the long dark hair and Gothic vampire vibe – repeatedly shrieks the name "Stella" as if summoning the spirit of A Streetcar Named Desire-era Brando from the Great Beyond. It's fitting that these two men bond in rejection, since that's all they face when they move to Los Angeles. Sestero finds an agent and a girlfriend (Allison Brie); Wiseau finds rejection from a miffed Judd Apatow in a restaurant. ("You'll never make it, not in a million years," the Knocked Up director tell him. "But after that?" asks Tommy.) Then Wiseau decides to write his own movie and self finance it with $6 million he's raised from mysterious sources. It will star his best friend and himself. It will be called The Room.
Everything about this would-be Orson Welles is mysterious, from his age (he absurdly asserts to be 19) to his Eastern European-sounding accent (he claims to be from New Orleans). Franco mines the role for fun, especially since Wiseau proves equally hopeless as an actor, a writer and a director. In one scene, he blows take after take on one simple scene. Meanwhile, behind the camera, the crew – fronted by a wickedly deadpan Seth Rogen – recite the lines in unison that Wiseau can't get out of his garbled mouth:
"I did not hit her.
It's not true,
I did not hit her.
I did nawwwwttttt!
Oh, hi Mark."
If getting your jollies off of Wiseau's follies was the only thing that mattered, The Disaster Artist wouldn't be much of a movie so much as a series of mocking comic moments (though the one with Wiseau insisting his own bare ass in a sex scene will sell tickets brings fresh meaning to delusion). But Franco and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Fault in Our Stars) are after something more crucial to the creative process. Even when The Room becomes a cult hit, with audiences shouting the dialogue back at the screen a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Franco and the writers doesn't cheat on the hurt. Instead, they make their hero a martyr for anyone who longs to make art without the minimum requirements for the job. What motivates Wiseau? A drive to create? A desire for fame? A need to impress Sestero, whom he may or may not be in love with? The film lets these questions hover around the action in ways that give the film a soulful core.
And as a director, Franco succeeds beautifully at bringing coherence to chaos, a word that accurately describes the making of this modern midnight-movie phenomenon. Do you need to see The Room to appreciate The Disaster Artist? Not really. The recreations of key scenes from that kitsch classic are shot with stunningly tacky verisimilitude and played to the scrappy hilt by an up-for-anything cast, including Zac Efron, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson and Jacki Weaver. These merry pranksters make sure that this movie is a comic bonanza that deserves to form its own cult. But it's James Franco who hits a new career peak as actor and director by making sure his film is as heartfelt as it is hilarious. The Disaster Artist is his baby. But the movie beautifully pays tribute to both their talents.