If there was ever a behind-the-scenes story that begged to made into a movie of its own, then it’s the making of the mind-boggling cult classic The Room, a uniquely American accident of money, incompetence, and ego. The magnum opus of Tommy Wiseau, an eccentric and paranoid Polish immigrant with the looks of a B-movie vampire and a mess of personal issues about women, The Room is nearly an anti-film—an inane and unintentionally surreal soap opera, filled with non sequiturs, confused characters, and gratuitous, anatomically incorrect sex. Wiseau sank millions into the production, running the set like a miniature Heaven’s Gate. In a shoot that stretched on for months, he hired and fired entire crews, recast leading roles, reshot scenes in different sets, and added and deleted subplots (including one in which his character had a flying car), but never succeeded in learning the dialogue he’d written for himself. His self-financed vanity project—complete with lavish coverage of his pasty, clenched ass—instead made him the biggest name in bad movies since Ed Wood, turning The Room into the preeminent midnight movie of our dim time. The material is rich and wild, but The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s cameo-packed tribute to the film and its singular creator, is barely a movie.
How did a story with this much potential get turned into something so unimaginative? Well, for one, because the film couldn’t exist without the blessing of Wiseau, who has turned The Room into a cottage industry. Though The Disaster Artist is nominally an adaption of the same-titled book by Wiseau’s former roommate and co-star Greg Sestero and the critic and journalist Tom Bissell, the movie bears only faint traces of its characterization of the secretive, self-made filmmaker; the exclusion of any biographical details (many of which are now public knowledge) leaves yawning gaps in the script, which was written by the duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days Of Summer, The Spectacular Now, The Fault In Ours Stars, etc.). In a different context, Franco’s casting of himself as Wiseau might have been pointed: the handsome, Oscar-nominated movie star behind the accent and shoulder-length black wig as a visual metaphor for the character’s Hollywood ambitions. But in this hash of sub-Apatovian buddy picture beats, his performance never rises above a superficial impression. One can’t help but wonder what, say, Nicolas Cage could have done with this role and a meatier screenplay.
Opening with a montage of celebrity testimonials (never a good sign), The Disaster Artist briefly rescues itself with its first scene, in which a 20-year-old Sestero (Dave Franco) flubs his way through Waiting For Godot in front of his San Francisco acting class. In storms Wiseau in a Napoleonic jacket and frilled red velvet blouse, shouting “Stella!” as he tosses chairs and climbs up a stage ladder like King Kong. The friendship that soon develops between these two wannabe thespians—one can’t act, the other doesn’t know he can’t act—is an inherently poignant idea, as are all bonds between big-dreaming losers. But the relationship is vaguely phrased. Wiseau is a quirky, moody space alien, while Sestero is supposed to the pretty boy; it doesn’t help that the Franco brothers are both in their 30s, but are playing characters with a 23-year age difference. The world of the film is ersatz, short on period details apart from Wiseau’s tacky wardrobe (it’s set in the late 1990s and early 2000s), with everyone wearing godawful wigs, the entire lazy enterprise summed up by the embarrassing teddy-bear-fur beard glued to the younger Franco’s face in the second half of the movie.
Of course, one could argue that parts of the film look cheap and phony on purpose, and that The Disaster Artist represents the conceptual apotheosis of Franco’s directing career, which is itself a vanity project. (A random reference to the end of Beau Travail resembles Wiseau’s habit of overambitious quotation; this is possibly intentional.) But the fact is that Franco isn’t a natural filmmaker. This is his 18th feature as a director, and his most mainstream effort to date; after years of hacking unwatchable literary adaptations out of the American canon (John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle was the most recent victim), he has matured into mediocrity. Commercially speaking, this probably doesn’t matter: The Disaster Artist’s target audience are people who have already semi-memorized The Room and who will appreciate Franco’s studious recreations of scenes from the film, as well as the lengthy clip reel coda that plays his recreated scenes side-by-side with the originals to further demonstrate their studiousness. Maybe for his next movie (he has five in post-production), he can put his grad school grades in the credits.
But will anyone who hasn’t seen The Room actually be able to piece together a sense of this Z-grade sensation from watching The Disaster Artist? Franco has a fan’s affection for Wiseau’s mannerisms, but if his objective was to lionize him as an outsider auteur à la Ed Wood, then he’s failed. The idea that The Room’s strange and bitter qualities are very personal and rooted in some deep pain is obvious to anyone who’s seen the film—except, it seems, to the star and director of this movie. His performance is too gentle to give the character a soul. Franco’s Tommy Wiseau is an oblivious creature who bangs out the script to his mystifying tour de force in a furiously hokey typewriter montage; without any internal conflicts, motivations, or backstory to speak of, his ambitions are simplified into his relationship with Sestero, a character whose two modes are “wide-eyed” and “peeved.”
But The Disaster Artist has something going for it: Wiseau’s ineptitude and penny-ante tyranny on the set. Whether he’s burning through dozens of flubbed takes in front of an exhausted crew (including Seth Rogen as the exasperated script supervisor), insisting on filming a sex scene with his leading lady (Ari Graynor) with all of the members of the cast present, or getting a personal toilet installed in the middle of the soundstage, Wiseau struts his private despotate of fake brick walls like a perfect parody of directorial hubris. And yet, for some reason, these scenes are only a small part of The Disaster Artist. There is a lesson hidden in them: No matter how much time, control, or money you get, this stuff still takes talent.