SXSW: James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” matches big laughs with huge heart


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

The words “so-bad-it’s-good” have become synonymous with “The Room.” Its lead star, writer and director, Tommy Wiseau, is a cinema icon and beloved for his larger-than-life personality. It’s easy to dismiss him as a talentless hack, but director James Franco may have you thinking otherwise with “The Disaster Artist,” a hilarious and heartfelt film based on the making of Wiseau’s magnum opus.

It begins with Wiseau’s real-life friend and co-star in “The Room,” Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), struggling to perform confidently in an acting class. Wiseau (James Franco) follows Sestero’s efforts with a spirited, though terrible, riff on Marlon Brando from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” While his peers find Wiseau off-putting thanks to his mannerisms, Sestero is drawn to his full commitment to his performance.

The shy Sestero teams up with the dogged and unflinching Wiseau, and they soon become inseparable on their journey to become stars, moving to Hollywood and pitching themselves to casting agents day in and day out. The elder Franco nails Wiseau’s the real-life Wiseau’s unplaceable accent, odd laugh and eccentricities, but when you’re playing a person like Wiseau, it’s hard to prevent the performance from becoming too cartoony. At times, Franco’s portrayal dangerously toes the line between accurate and parodic as Wiseau becomes a punchline himself.

Fortunately, “The Disaster Artist” isn’t interested in mean-spirited mockery, but in offering a glimpse inside the enigmatic Wiseau, who refuses to disclose the source of his immense wealth, his true age and his birthplace (Wiseau claims it is New Orleans). As Wiseau grows increasingly distraught that no one in Hollywood likes him, Franco adds emotional weight to his portrayal that makes it a great one and reveals to us a man who simply wants to be loved.

On the other hand, Sestero begins to grow frustrated with his friend, as Wiseau’s jealousy of Sestero’s relationship with Amber (Alison Brie) and likability strain their brotherhood. The charismatic and equally funny Dave Franco earns his keep as the film’s straight man, and he’s the audience’s anchor for much of the film.

To prove himself, Wiseau decides to make his own drama about an American banker betrayed by his girlfriend and best friend. Sestero hides his reservations about the problematic script, and production begins with a crew that can’t take Wiseau seriously.

Based on Sestero’s book of the same name, Franco’s film provides us fascinating recreations of famous scenes in “The Room” and the story behind its peculiar creative decisions. A slew of Franco’s previous collaborators make cameos in the movie, including an aggressive Zac Efron as the actor for drug dealer Chris R, and Josh Hutcherson perfectly embodying the actor who played Denny. “The Disaster Artist’s” portrayal of the production of “The Room” is consistently humorous at the outset, even for those who haven’t seen the actual movie itself. But audiences that aren’t in the know won’t get as much mileage as those who are.

As the production of “The Room” falls apart, “The Disaster Artist” takes on more serious dimension as it explores the meaning of the artist’s intent versus his audience’s reception. From the beginning of the film, it’s obvious how the story ends – “The Room” becomes the “best worst movie of all time.” Yet, “The Disaster Artist” doesn’t see Wiseau as a failure, but as a man who has brought the joy to people that he’d always wanted to. Through Sestero, the film provides a sweet, loving tribute to his weirdness that would have been easy to shame. Franco concludes Wiseau may not have crafted the epic American drama he envisioned, but what he ended up making with was better: something people can love.

How many filmmakers achieve that?


“The Disaster Artist”

Running Time: 115 minutes

Rating: NR

Score: 4.5/5 stars