The idea of achieving immortality through awfulness – being “So bad, it’s good” – is hardly a new one. Still, “The Disaster Artist” – James Franco’s hyphenated turn as star, producer and director – deftly falls into that comedic pantheon, joining the likes of “Ed Wood” in making an entertaining movie about a truly terrible one.
The target here is “The Room,” the mysterious Tommy Wiseau’s 2006 opposite-of-a-masterpiece (or “disaster-piece,” per the marketing), which became a can-you-believe-it hit on the midnight-movie circuit. Based on the book co-written by Wiseau’s friend and star Greg Sestero, Franco’s film painstakingly reconstructs the making of that movie, a process conducted so meticulously that at the end the new movie proudly showcases scenes from the two side by side, using a split screen.
There’s a family-affair feel to the whole exercise, with Franco as Wiseau – adopting a peculiar accent and unkempt mop of hair – and his brother, Dave Franco, playing Sestero, who is initially caught up in Wiseau’s enthusiasm before beginning to grow weary of apologizing for his pal’s strangeness.
Seth Rogen – Franco’s frequent co-star – shares producer credit, and appears as one of the crew members, who are happy to garner a paycheck but positively mystified over what sort of movie their director is making, among other things. (Bryan Cranston, who recently appeared opposite Franco in “Why Him?,” also drops by.)
“Hollywood reject us? Then we do it on our own,” Tommy tells Greg, capitalizing on his enthusiasm and naivete.
There’s an unavoidable Hollywood-centric nature to the exercise, as if those old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show!” movies somehow went horrible wrong. The insider-ish nature of that doesn’t undermine the movie – Wiseau is such a peculiar character that a lot of the laughs are pretty broad – but one suspects “The Disaster Artist” will play better among those with a midnight-movie sensibility in general, and those who’ve seen (or endured) its source material in particular.
Although Franco isn’t above spoofing his own image, Wiseau provides such a ripe target it’s virtually impossible to overplay him. As a director, Franco does feel as if he pulls up a bit in places, especially near the end – as if his underlying fondness for this misguided dreamer softens the problematic aspects of his self-absorption and cluelessness.
By that point, though, “The Disaster Artist” has delivered admirably on its premise, so much so that when it inevitably shows up on a midnight double feature with its inspiration, happily, there won’t be any irony involved.
“The Disaster Artist” premieres in select cities Dec. 1 and nationwide in the U.S. on Dec. 8. It’s rated R.