Into this season of the Serious Movie, when every other film seems to speak to the troubled times in which we actually live, the fact-based yet farcical “The Disaster Artist” blows like a fresh breeze, throwing open a window through which we may escape, briefly, from ugly reality.
Inspired by the making of the movie “The Room” — a labor of cinematic ineptitude that has been called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies” — this sweet, affectionate (and unapologetically slight) comedy is an all-too-rare homage to harmless, hilarious incompetence, at a time when there is plenty of the more hurtful kind to go around. If it isn’t quite up to the standards of “Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s 1994 tribute to the auteur of such misbegotten movies as “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” it is nonetheless a much-needed distraction.
“The Room” was the brainchild of one Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious nobody who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the 2003 vanity project, a box office dud that has gone on to become a staple of raucous midnight screenings (including at Kansas City’s Screenland Tapcade).
The plot of Wiseau’s movie, to the extent that there is one, concerns a love triangle. Its hallmarks are wooden performances, bad dialogue, perplexingly random characters and plot points that go nowhere, and protracted, awkward sex.
In “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco also wears multiple hats, directing, producing and starring as the real-life Tommy, whom he impersonates marvelously beneath a long, jet-black wig and dark, wraparound glasses, rendering his alter ego’s amusingly unidentifiable accent and slightly demented laugh with pokerfaced glee. (Tommy routinely tells people he’s from New Orleans, although Eastern Europe is probably closer to the truth.)
Other characters are rendered less convincingly than their real-life counterparts, with an assortment of fake-looking dye jobs, wigs and facial hair that make the cast of “The Disaster Artist” seem, incongruously, less real than the characters in “The Room.”
Like the memoir on which it’s based, by Wiseau’s “The Room” co-star Greg Sestero, the events unfold from the perspective of Greg (Dave Franco), an aspiring 19-year-old actor who meets the 40-something Tommy in a San Francisco theater class.
When the two untalented hacks commiserate about their lack of opportunities, Tommy suggests moving to Los Angeles, where they end up making their own movie, reportedly financed by $6 million of Tommy’s money (although where that cash comes from is a mystery, like almost everything else about Wiseau).
Seeing “The Room” beforehand isn’t a prerequisite. Franco slavishly duplicates many of the, er, best moments from the 2003 film, and they’re good fun, even for newbies. The cast includes, in small roles, such comic actors as Seth Rogan, Megan Mullally, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Zac Efron.
But there’s a Tommy Wiseau-shaped hole at the center of this project, despite the script’s efforts to render Tommy as sympathetic, if not entirely comprehensible,. In interviews, the real Wiseau comes across as maddeningly evasive and opportunistic. If Franco’s Tommy is a cipher, so is the man he’s portraying.
This void spoils some of the giddy fun of “Disaster.” Although the film is intended more as a love letter than an expose, there are nagging questions that some viewers might wish to see addressed, but probably never will.
Who’s exploiting whom here, in a cultural transaction that has commodified dreck? Is Wiseau using Franco, or is it the other way around? And what about the relationship between Sestero and Wiseau, who are said to still speak on a daily basis? Is Wiseau, who seems only to appreciate “The Room” as a way to make more money, really in on the same joke as the audiences who have adopted him as a kind of aging-hipster mascot?
It’s not that “The Disaster Artist” doesn’t answer these questions. It doesn’t even seem vaguely interested in asking them.
‘The Disaster Artist’
Rated R for coarse language throughout and some sexuality and nudity.