Every year brings its share of ill-conceived or poorly executed movies. Much harder to come by are films awful enough to earn the love and devotion of those attracted to epic big-screen failure. Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space and Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls are prime examples of films that live in the hearts of bad-movie fans and maintain cult status as the decades pass.
The new king of cinematic catastrophe is Tommy Wiseau. In 2003, Wiseau wrote, directed, produced and starred in a spectacularly inept film called The Room that gradually has become a cult phenomenon. Many theaters around the world that offer midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (such as our own Prytania Theatre) now also screen The Room for audiences that interact with the film in similar style — dressing as characters from the movie and hurling insults and props at the screen.
Even today, Wiseau is a mysterious figure who refuses to say how old he is, where he was born or how he acquired the $6 million he spent to make The Room. He has explained his vaguely Eastern European accent by saying he's from New Orleans, often adding that he used to live in Chalmette. The cluelessness of his film remains a source of wonder. It's as if an alien came down from the skies, happened across a low-budget porn movie and assumed that the incoherent, poorly acted material presented between sex scenes was all a film could ever be — and then decided to make one.
All the above proved irresistible to filmmaker and Academy Award-nominated actor James Franco. Based on a published memoir by Greg Sestero (Wiseau's friend and co-star in The Room), Franco's The Disaster Artist tells the story of Wiseau's behind-the-scenes struggles to get his movie made despite the utter disinterest of Hollywood.
Franco has expressed admiration for Wiseau's tenacity and drive and walks a fine line by finding much unintentional humor in The Room while not belittling its director. The Disaster Artist is warm-hearted and funny but finds purpose mainly through Franco's dazzling performance as Wiseau. Those unfamiliar with The Room — or impervious to its charms — may scratch their heads at The Disaster Artist and its meticulous recreations of Wiseau's trainwreck film.
As Wiseau, Franco captures the peculiar mix of goofiness and menace that has made the amateur filmmaker such a baffling figure. Dave Franco (James' younger brother) is reasonably convincing as Sestero, but the natural rapport between brothers provides real benefit to the film. As a sincere tale of unlikely friendship (Wiseau and Sestero are opposites in just about every respect), The Disaster Artist scores some points.
The Room's cheap sets, bad lighting, worse acting and non-sequiturs of every imaginable type are on full display in The Disaster Artist's second half, as Franco gets down to the tricky business of making a film within a film while serving as director and star of both. To make matters even more meta, Franco reportedly stayed in character throughout the shoot's 16-hour days. There's frantic, off-kilter fun to the best of these scenes that seems to make them jump off the screen.
Maybe the value of The Room — and, by extension, The Disaster Artist — lies in the perspective it provides on so many other, not-quite-as-bad movies. By celebrating the worst films along with the best, we ward off the mediocrity and commercialism that too often lie between.