When James Franco brought Tommy Wiseau up on stage to accept the Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy, the circle for the cult film The Room had finally been completed. A cultural phenomenon since its initial release in 2003, The Room, directed, produced, and entirely funded by Wiseau, had finally been given the mass recognition Wiseau dreamed of. Deemed the Citizen Kane (1941) of bad movies, The Room has garnered a cult following (rivaled only by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jim Sharman, 1975) with quote-a-long midnight showings, spoon-tossing audience participation, and random screening appearances by Wiseau himself. Even after its release, Wiseau kept The Room in theaters for two weeks so it could qualify for the Academy Awards. In Wiseau’s mind, The Room had always been destined for greatness, regardless of the film’s critical impact. Simply put, The Room, is a symbol of accomplishing one’s dream through friendship, experience, and passion for one’s work. Ultimately, it is not the reception of the art that matters, but the journey and memories that the art creates. Nearly fifteen years later, The Disaster Artist (2017), a film based on the book of the same name written by The Room costar Greg Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell, explores these concepts by following the apparent true story of the making of The Room. Unlike The Room, The Disaster Artist is a truly great piece of cinema that is incredibly funny, honest, and that serves as a ballad for independent artists everywhere.
The Disaster Artist was directed by James Franco, who also leads as Wiseau, while Dave Franco (James Franco’s brother) stars as Sestero. The film chronicles the story of how The Room was made from the perspective of Sestero and Wiseau’s friendship. The film follows Sestero, an aspiring yet fearful actor who wants nothing more than to make it big in Hollywood. Soon Sestero meets Wiseau in an acting class where he is puzzled by Wiseau’s odd physical appearance, mysterious demeanor, flamboyant acting, and fearless attitude. Sestero, in awe of Wiseau’s confident and unapologetic nature, decides to befriend him and the two form a unique friendship. When faced with rejection by the entertainment industry, the duo embarks on a journey to Los Angeles to make their own film, all mysteriously funded by Wiseau.
While Dave Franco does a good job as Sestero, James Franco’s performance as Wiseau is captivating. Wiseau is one of those rare characters that simply exists between the planes of stranger than fiction and an experimental nineties cartoon character, but is one hundred percent real. From the accent to the physical mannerisms, James Franco’s performance breathes life into Wiseau as if Wiseau himself is on screen (for a direct comparison, stay after the end credits). The thing I like most about James Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau, both from a directing and acting standpoint, is that it is not outright mean or cruel. Wiseau, as a character, is always presented in a fashion that is imperfect and comedic but not mean-spirited. It can be very easy to cruelly make fun of Wiseau in terms of his odd appearance, extravagant personality and overall failure in filmmaking, but the film avoids this by tailoring the humor to the situation rather than to the person. For example, whether it is Wiseau saying the “I did not hit her, I did not” line twenty times, or Wiseau wanting to shoot in a studio alleyway rather than the real alleyway, the film’s laughs come from the ridiculousness of the situation and not from Wiseau himself. By the end of the film, this divergence of humor allows Wiseau to become a charismatic character that you admire, empathize with, and respect, rather than a punchline to a bad joke.
The best thing The Disaster Artist does is focus its plot around the relationship of Wiseau and Sestero. At its core, The Disaster Artist is a film about friendship and how genuine personal connections and experience are more important than one’s reputation. This is where The Disaster Artist truly shines. By the film focusing on and exploring the connection of Sestero and Wiseau, themes of honesty, self-depreciation, and humanity are explored. In The Disaster Artist, Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship is always depicted as incredibly honest and never strays too far from believability. Even when Wiseau could be blamed for ruining Sestero’s career, the film never vilifies Wiseau or depicts Sestero as naïve and manipulated. For example, when Wiseau forces Sestero to shave his face for the end scene of The Room, thus not allowing Sestero to be cast in Malcolm in the Middle, both parties are never manipulated or driven by ego. Both individuals are always depicted as loyal to each other and the project, rather than selfish or envious of one another’s career (or lack thereof). Dave Franco as Sestero is a really good foil to James Franco’s eccentric Wiseau – keeping the relationship humble, grounded, and overall authentic.
As the mystery behind The Room and Wiseau could distract from The Disaster Artist’s honest themes, the film cleverly avoids this issue by addressing these questions throughout the film. For example, Sestero constantly asks Wiseau questions about Wiseau’s age, place of birth, and how he acquired so much money – questions The Room fans have been asking for years. Though the film doesn’t give us all the answers, asking these questions allows the audience to have a clear head and truly experience Wiseau as a relatable human being rather than the cartoony man of mystery. This characterization allows the last moments of the film, where Wiseau finally screens The Room, to transform into something incredibly genuine. In this scene, Sestero, Wiseau and audience members are presented in a medium shot while quick edits between audience reactions and iconic scenes from The Room are incorporated. As The Room continues and people start laughing at the film, the sound of laughter is accentuated while the camera remains on Wiseau and Sestero to highlight their two very different reactions – one of failure and one of hilarity. Even in the next scene where Wiseau is comforted by Sestero and brought back on stage after the film, the camera cycles from medium and close-up shots to model the stages of humiliation, honesty, truth, and valor inspired by one’s art. In these scenes, camerawork, editing and sound all work in tandem to emphasize The Disaster Artist’s themes of friendship, passion, and the spirit of pure independent and authentic creativity.
The Disaster Artist reminds us that The Room is not a studio cash grab but simply a sincere film made by someone who had a dream. Though it can be easy to poke fun at Wiseau and The Room, Wiseau still made a film that he truly believed was great, and people loved it. The greatest lesson The Disaster Artist teaches us is that it’s not the reception of your work that matters, but the journey, relationships, and memories that your creation makes.
Jason Husak is a University of Alberta film studies graduate who currently resides in Edmonton, Canada. He hopes to purse his passion for film by doing a graduate degree in film studies at the University of Toronto. For more in-depth film reviews, discussion, and analyses, you can follow Jason’s film and entertainment podcast Boring People, Bad Opinions on iTunes, Google Play, or Soundcloud.
The Disaster Artist (2017)
Director James Franco
Runtime 104 minutes