Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is often regarded as the worst film in the history of cinema, but if you set out on a journey to find another project worthy of that moniker, you wouldn’t need to look much further than 2003’s The Room. Written and directed by Tommy Wiseau (who also plays the leading role) and produced for a rumored $6 million, the film grossed less than $2000 during its initial theatrical run, yet somehow went on to become a cult classic that spawned legions of fans across the world.
The chain of events leading to this unlikely story is chronicled in The Disaster Artist, a hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt examination of Wiseau’s friendship with Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), who penned the memoir on which the film is based. We first encounter Greg in a San Francisco drama class, where any talent he may have is buried under a mountain of insecurity, leaving him unable to get through a scene without stammering. Greg is blown away by the fearlessness of classmate Tommy (James Franco), who marches onto the stage in his peculiar wardrobe and cascade of jet black hair, throwing himself onto the floor and bellowing “Stella!” in a thick accent which sounds vaguely European.
Greg and Tommy strike up a friendship over lunch at a nearby diner, and soon the duo are inseparable, acting out scenes in public spaces and taking an impromptu road trip to visit the site of James Dean’s tragic demise. When Tommy suggest they move to Los Angeles (where he owns a house) to pursue their respective acting career, Greg jumps at the chance, despite reservations about his new friend’s true age (he claims to be nineteen but looks more like 40), background (he’s allegedly from New Orleans, but his accent says otherwise) and source of income (Tommy evades any questions relating to his finances).
Los Angeles welcome Greg with open arms, while Tommy becomes increasingly frustrated with a system he believes is conspiring against him. But whatever Tommy lacks in talent, he makes up for in gumption, and soon he’s hammering out a screenplay for his own film, which he’ll shoot with his own money, his own crew, and his own cast – including a major supporting role for Greg. What follows is the stuff of legend, and fans of The Room will delight in seeing that film’s most iconic moments recreated is painstaking detail, not to mention the vast turmoil that occurred behind the scenes as the wildly inexperienced mastermind ignored advice from experienced professionals and refused to compromise his vision.
It would have been easy for The Disaster Artist to come across as mean-spirited, but it’s clear from the opening moments that James Franco (who directed the film) has a clear affection for not only the story, but for Tommy himself. The actor goes to great lengths to capture every facet of Tommy’s personality, from the long hair and dark glasses to the trademark accent and dubious grasp on the English language, and reports from the set indicate the elder Franco remained in character for the duration of the shoot, even when working behind the camera.
Dave Franco acquits himself admirably as the de facto leading man of The Disaster Artist: the events are told mostly from his point of view, and he often serves as the audience proxy for the increasingly bizarre production of what would eventually be known as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” All the while, Greg is still trying to pursue a legitimate acting career, and the younger Franco does an excellent job conveying the anguish as Greg becomes torn between his loyalty to Tommy and a growing contempt for his friend’s delusion and unprofessionalism.
The Disaster Artist includes a treasure trove of celebrity cameos, opening with the likes of Kristen Bell, Adam Scott and Kevin Smith discussing the cult following garnered by The Room, and also features Seth Rogen as an irritable script supervisor, Judd Apatow as a high-powered producer (not exactly a stretch), and Hannibal Burress as the proprietor of a film and lighting rental company. Dedicated fans who stay through the credits will also be treated to a surreal moment in which Franco’s version of Wiseau encounters the real thing at a rooftop party, and it’s even more ridiculous than you might imagine.
Despite chronicling the tumultuous production of a film that would become legendary for being so terrible, The Disaster Artist is nevertheless a love letter to the magic of filmmaking, and an inspirational underdog story about an outcast who overcame every obstacle in his path and ultimately found success – albeit not in the way he originally envisioned. It’s also the funniest film of the year, with an unexpected amount of heart: Tommy may be an exceptionally weird dude, but he’s still human, and Franco’s performance not only separates the man from the character for which he’s become synonymous, but also creates empathy for every misfit and reject who ever felt like they didn’t belong.