2 1/2 out of 4 stars
The term “cult film” covers a lot of ground. It could be a movie that had a limited initial release, one that never had a theatrical release but later came out on home video or one that came out, made little money initially but went on to not only clear a profit but eventually became a cinematic and cultural phenomenon. Two such titles are “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” from 1975 and “The Room” from 2003.
Written, directed and produced by and starring Tommy Wiseau, “The Room” cost $6 million to produce yet made less than $2,000 on opening weekend. But it has since gone on to clear a healthy profit thanks to global midnight movie screenings and multiple home video releases, and it will likely make even more in the coming weeks thanks to “The Disaster Artist.”
People who love “The Room” are few but fervent, and probably not in a way Wiseau had ever intended. A man who to this day guards his actual age and country of origin, Wiseau thought himself a supreme thespian and visionary and, thanks to a mystery bank account that another character in this film termed “bottomless,” he was able to bankroll what is considered to be “the greatest bad movie ever made.”
Co-produced and directed by James Franco, “The Disaster Artist” is a making-of the making of “The Room,” in which Franco also stars as Wiseau, and it might just be his finest performance to date. Playing a bad actor turning in a bad performance isn’t as easy as it may seem, and Franco is immensely believable in the part but makes an unforgiveable mistake. He tries to make Wiseau both likeable and respectable while simultaneously mocking him and turning him into a laughing stock — the latter of which was far too easy.
Tim Burton did almost this same thing with “Ed Wood” — a movie that satirized the title character — a filmmaker with zero talent who pretty much knew he had no talent - but kind of made up for it with limitless, unbridled enthusiasm. As Franco defines Wiseau, he had much enthusiasm and believed he deserved success solely because he wanted it. The bigger problem was Wiseau thought he was the rightful heir to the legacies of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Marlon Brando AND James Dean, and he knew no shame or limits.
Hanging out in San Francisco and attending multiple actors workshops at the turn of the century, Wiseau was approached by fellow actor Greg Sestero (Franco’s brother Dave), who was impressed with his “intensity” — Wiseau repeatedly screamed “Stella!” while writhing on a stage. A wide-eyed greenhorn, Sestero thought himself lucky to meet such a kindred spirit, and in what seems like no time, he’s whisked away by Wiseau to Los Angeles, where they both start down their respective paths to fame and fortune.
Neither Sestero nor Wiseau had much luck and the former suggests to the latter that they make their own movie. As if struck by a lightning bolt of divine inspiration, Wiseau uses that mysterious bank account to fund a full-blown production, surrounding himself with professional performers and assorted technicians — and immediately ignoring them as they simply try to do their jobs.
As impressive and all-encompassing as James Franco’s performance might be — and it is truly something to behold — his work behind the camera rarely extends beyond perfunctory. Re-enacting scenes from another movie — however accurate — does not equate to visionary filmmaking but rather something more akin to talented mimicry. Perhaps Franco recognized this himself during the split-screen closing credit sequence when he positions dozens of shots from his film and “The Room” next to each other. He’s kind of admitting this to be his crowning achievement.
Whatever its shortcomings may be — and they are plenty — “The Disaster Artist” is a sincere love letter to the filmmaking process — one that values effort equally with quality. Wiseau set out to make what he thought was something on a level with “Citizen Kane” and became only momentarily disappointed when people laughed at it and him. He set out to become famous and he succeeded all while coming across as a man far too impressed with his own talent, which he failed to recognize as being minimal.
Without perhaps knowing or intending to do so, Wiseau did what far too many people would also do at the drop of a hat: become famous even if it means looking stupid and inept while doing so. James Franco isn’t honoring Wiseau here; he’s offering up a warning. Wanting fame, no matter what the cost, comes with a price — one that a flush bank account and accolades from people who think you a fool — will never warrant. It should be noted that when asked multiple times recently how accurate Franco’s film is, Wiseau responded “99 1/2 percent.” He’s still on the clock.
(A24/Warner Bros./ New Line)