Release Date: December 1, 2017
Director: James Franco
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 103 Minutes
The most underrated part of going to see a comedy in theatres is the mood of the room – the slightly awkward moment when people around you laugh at something that you don’t; the pure joy of being the only person to laugh at something else; the visceral reaction of laughter that is disruptive, spontaneous and loud. This makes the comedy one of the most exciting genres to see in theatres. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist takes advantage of this excitement by tapping into the weirdest contribution to recent Hollywood mythology – The Room.
James Franco is Tommy Wiseau, and Dave Franco is Greg Sestero, as they go from meeting in a drama class in San Francisco to the premiere of The Room five years later. While the supporting players are universally great (including Alison Brie as Sestero’s girlfriend, Seth Rogen as the film’s script supervisor and Jacki Weaver as the infamous, cancerous aunt in the film), every moment of this film is saturated by the Francos giving the best performances of their careers.
That being said, what makes these performances so great is not that they are “good” acting. James’ Wiseau is superficially similar to the real man, but whenever he smiles you see the real James Franco shine through the make-up. Dave’s Sestero, on the other hand, is obviously forcing a youthful naivete to the screen that is pretty hard to believe.
This level of meta superficiality though is completely necessary for this film to work. A lot of the comedy would not have materialized had Franco gone too far in any other direction. Too serious and it would have felt like a TV biopic; too wink-and-nudge and you get Ed Wood; and of course they could have just spent the whole movie making fun of Wiseau, but that would have just been cruel.
The needle that Franco thread here is to disarm us with imperfections, to use the complete implausibility of Sestero’s infatuation with Wiseau to get the drama going (whether we believe it or not) and then to get us to the movie set, where we are torn between the rampant chaos of the production and genuinely rooting for this maniac.
And this brings me back to why seeing comedies in theatres is important. When Wiseau and Sestero get to the premiere in a packed LA theater and the movie starts, the audience around me was totally cracking up at the movie within a movie on screen. All the lines and scenes from The Room that we know so well were recreated with such great effect by Franco’s team that it was impossible not to find it funny.
Then the audience around Franco in the film started laughing too, and very quickly the audience around me stopped. With some great editing choices, the film frames this moment as one in which our sympathy for Wiseau should be at its highest. Wiseau, this borderline abusive employer, manipulative friend and all-around weirdo, has our sympathies because he made a movie and now everyone is laughing at it.
This kind of moment in a theater is my favourite because it highlights the incredible power of cinema in the hands of someone who cares. The Francos and their team care about The Room. They don’t just enjoy participating in it at screenings; they love it and want to understand how something so uniquely perfect could have been made. And in the process they’ve made something uniquely perfect in its own right. A movie that seems impossible about a movie that seems impossible.