In a perverse kind of way, Tommy Wiseau is a classic American hero. I should clarify that he’s clearly not from America, although he claims to be from New Orleans (his bizarre accent is vaguely Easter European filtered through some sort of So-Cal patois), but that’s beside the point. Only in America could Tommy’s combination of naiveté, chutzpah, white male privilege, and blind faith in himself turn into a kind of unlikely success story.
The Disaster Artist, which is directed by James Franco, who also ingenuously and hilariously embodies the role of Tommy, tells the strange but true story of how The Room, arguably the worst film of all time, got made and later became a midnight movie cult mainstay.
When we first meet Tommy, it’s through the worshipful eyes of Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), at an acting class. Greg is shy and inhibited on stage, while Tommy is all reckless id and raw emotion. He’s a terrible actor—method gone amok—but Greg is a bit too dim to see that. All he sees is Tommy’s fearlessness—something he wants a piece of for himself.
The two young men become friends—I should clarify that only 19-year-old Greg is actually young; Tommy claims to be the same age but is clearly in his 30s—and eventually they move to LA together. They bond over their mutual love of James Dean—a particularly overwrought bit of acting in Rebel Without a Cause seals their devotion—and their desire to be famous.
Greg, who is blandly handsome, immediately has more luck than Tommy, who with his long black hair and permanent Blue Steel scowl looks like he’s starring in some porn production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Greg gets an agent (Sharon Stone, in one of the film’s funny cameos) while Tommy keeps striking out at auditions. (A scene where he “auditions” for a producer—Judd Apatow in another pitch-perfect cameo—by doing Hamlet in the middle of an upscale restaurant is particularly cringe-inducing.) Tommy has a seemingly endless supply of money (is he a criminal? A European count?) and an almost endless supply of optimism, but finally he gets discouraged. That’s when Greg wistfully says, “I wish we could just make our own movie.” A gleam forms in Tommy’s eye.
Tommy feverishly writes the script for what will eventually become The Room, a drama of sex and betrayal and lots of nonsensical tangents, with Tommy casting himself as its tortured and misunderstood hero, Johnny.
Tommy funds the film himself, inexplicably shooting on both film and digital, and lets Greg play the role of his romantic rival Mark. He hires a bunch of jaded union guys to be the crew—Seth Rogen is great as the increasingly nonplussed script supervisor—and they start to film. I can’t emphasize enough how funny these scenes on the set are. Again and again, we cut from Tommy’s onset histrionics—horrible acting, temper tantrums, gratuitous nudity—to the astonished crew, looking on in shock and cracking wise under their breath. Eventually Greg begins to see the truth—that the film is bad, embarrassingly bad, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
The Disaster Artist is primarily a comedy, but it’s also a lovely portrait of the friendship between Tommy and Greg, somehow made even more touching by the fact that the two actors are real-life brothers. Greg begins to distance himself from Tommy—he gets a serious girlfriend (Alison Brie) and starts to see that Tommy is a charlatan and a bit of a leech, too—but he still loves the guy. After all, if weren’t for Tommy, Greg would never have moved to LA and had the courage to pursue his dreams. And also, beneath all his bravado, Tommy is actually a sad character—lonely, overly covetous of Greg’s friendship, desperate to be understood. The beauty of this film is how perfectly it calibrates the broad humor and the poignancy. (It’s also a bit of a love letter to movies—and the audacious dreamers who make them.)
The Disaster Artist should definitely first be seen in the theater, with a raucous crowd roaring with laughter. But later it should be seen at home where you can also observe the film’s sneaky empathy and grace.
The Disaster Artist opens Friday, December 8 in Baltimore.