In earlier eras, rampaging exhibitionists like The Room writer, director, and leading man Tommy Wiseau would have been displayed in cages, giving garrulous answers to cosmological questions and being poked with long sticks. Now they’re objects of ironic reverence and award-season biopics like The Disaster Artist, directed by and starring James Franco. The movie is a freak show for hipsters, many of whom once goggled at the grade-Z soft-core melodrama The Room and speculated on its plainly disturbed auteur. There’s a surface resemblance to Ed Wood, but Tim Burton’s gee-whiz, Horatio Alger tone and affection for Wood’s sincerity is a world away from Franco’s Wiseau, with his nowhere accent, abiding paranoia, and creepy possessiveness. Wiseau is an enigma, a threat — and a source of high hilarity.
The movie’s protagonist isn’t Wiseau but his fast friend Greg Sistero (Dave Franco), who in life wrote (with Tom Bissell) the overoptimistically titled first-person account The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. (The Room is actually pretty boring.) Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script depicts Sistero as an actor of marginal talent but conventional handsomeness, another in a long line of would-be stars with a face that makes the occasional casting agent look more than once but rarely three times. Wiseau whisks Sistero from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where he puts the young man up in his expensive one-bedroom apartment and exhorts him to act with his heart, soul, and, alas, hambone. After enduring the requisite number of squirmy humiliations, Wiseau dips into his mysteriously limitless reserve of cash and writes The Room for himself and his roommate, for whom he has feelings that edge beyond bromance. The alter ego he pens for himself is telling: a generous man betrayed by his conniving fiancée and best friend but extravagantly mourned after he commits suicide.
The Disaster Artist is primarily a pedestal for the ultimate James Franco performance — it’s his Lincoln. Whatever my queasiness about laughing at a head case, I couldn’t help myself from thrilling to Franco’s timing, his relish, his swan dive into an egotism that has no bottom. The shooting of the most flabbergastingly terrible moments from The Room — met with calls-and-responses at midnight shows — are here sustained comic set pieces. I can’t believe his co-stars (among them Seth Rogen as the assistant director and Ari Graynor as the film’s leading lady) were able to keep a straight face.
In the too-tidy, 20/20-hindsight ending, the disappointed Wiseau comes to accept that the premiere audience’s riotous laughter has a bright side: It will bring him the celebrity he craves. That dodges the ultimate questions. Does he fully understand the prodigiousness of his lack of talent? And does the audience — us — deserve to be morally let off the hook for enjoying someone else’s ineptitude? Does our pleasure come from the relief that someone is a bigger fool than we are?
*This article appears in the November 27, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.