Movie review: Franco's hilarious 'Disaster Artist' re-enacts the worst film ever

The Room’s director, James Franco, as Tommy Wiseau

The Room’s director, James Franco, as Tommy Wiseau Photo by Justina Mintz, courtesy of A24

In the final minutes of The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s recreation of behind-the-scenes antics on the set of the worst movie of the millennium, Franco splits the screen in two. On one side: scenes from The Room, the all-too-real 2003 film here being dubiously honored. Playing simultaneously on the opposite side: Franco’s meticulous restaging of those same shoddy sets and poor performances.

The reenactments are spot on, but the joke wears thin fast. In its weaker moments, The Disaster Artist is a lovingly snide recreation of The Room’s lowlights, chock full of in-jokes to sate the cult following of that anti-masterpiece. But in the movie’s best moments, Franco delves into the pathos of the struggling artist whose struggle is almost certainly in vain—and he does it all without losing comedy’s crucial momentum. 

The Room itself is an incomprehensible jumble of sex, awkward pauses, and overacting. The oddly compelling, almost inconceivably awful melodrama was written, produced, and directed by the ambiguously foreign, thoroughly bizarre Tommy Wiseau, who is also the film’s star. Wiseau, a clueless novice with access to a seemingly endless supply of cash, personally provided The Room’s rumored $6 million budget and paid for a cryptic billboard advertising the film, which itself became a kind of curious landmark in Hollywood. The rest is midnight-movie history.

In a perfectly Wiseauean move, Franco casts himself as Tommy. Though they exist on opposite ends of the Hollywood food chain, the two are kindred spirits. Franco is a sometimes-fantastic actor who is also America’s Dilettante Laureate. In addition to some fine film work, he’s directed some ponderous literary adaptations, and created short fiction and art installations of... let’s say dubious merit. But like Tommy, he has a powerful will to create, and he will not be dissuaded by conventional notions of quality.

Franco is tremendous and tremendously funny as Wiseau, disguised behind some makeup, a Gene Simmons wig, and a deadly accurate impression of Tommy’s unique, unplaceable accent.

Franco is joined by his real-life brother Dave, playing Greg Sestero, The Room’s second lead, and whose memoir The Disaster Artist is sourced from. The talented younger Franco makes an ideal audience surrogate as he’s dragged along behind Wiseau’s crackpot dreams. The Franco boys get plenty of help from an ace supporting cast of cohorts and top comedy talent including Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Buress, and Bob Odenkirk.

Franco’s greatest challenge here is Wiseau’s inscrutability. Sestero’s memoir, co-written with the essayist Tom Bissell, is able to create an essential mystery out of Tommy Wiseau’s obviously bullshit backstory and his unwillingness to reveal anything true about himself. Off the page and onscreen, it feels more like a void. Those missing pieces hold back The Disaster Artist from achieving the emotional impact of Ed Wood, still the high-water mark of making a great movie about a bad movie.

But whatever we do know of Wiseau’s story is worth telling, and Franco spins it into something much more than a protracted, ironic goof. It’s a treat for The Room devotees and the uninitiated alike.

The Disaster Artist
directed by James Franco
now playing, Uptown Theatre