Midway through “The Disaster Artist,” aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is seen performing in a stage production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” He plays Biff Loman, and we see his final confrontation with his father, Willy. “What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself when all I want is out there waiting for me the moment I say I know who I am?”
The brief scene encapsulates several of the key themes of “The Disaster Artist,” the recently released film adaptation of Sestero’s non-fiction memoir about his experiences in the production of the cult film “The Room.” Like Miller’s play, the film is an examination of the costs of the pursuit of the American Dream, of the difference between one’s place in the world and one’s perception of same, though certainly more lighthearted and comic in tone.
“The Disaster Artist” opens in 1998, when 19-year old Sestero is a lackluster acting student in San Francisco. He befriends Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, who also directed) a bizarrely-dressed older student with an unrecognizable accent. Sestero admires the fearless energy and intensity Wiseau brings to his acting exercises.
After sometime, Wiseau, who drives a Mercedes and has seemingly limitless disposable income, casually mentions that he has an apartment in Los Angeles and invites Sestero to move with him there so that both can try their hands at professional acting. While Sestero is able to find an agent and some modest success doing modeling jobs and small roles, Wiseau is repeatedly told he will never succeed in Hollywood.
Eventually, on a half-joking suggestion from Sestero, Wiseau decided to write the screenplay for a film which he will produce, direct, and star in.
“It will be the greatest drama since Tennessee Williams,” Wiseau says of his project, which eventually becomes “The Room.”
“The Room” is widely considered one of the worst films ever made, and with good reason. The plot ostensibly concerns Johnny, a banker played by Wiseau, whose adoring fiancee inexplicably cheats on him with his best friend Mark (Sestero). The film features perhaps the most unappealing sex scenes ever committed to celluloid. Numerous seemingly significant plot points are introduced and then dropped without explanation. Much of the dialogue only makes sense if you assume it is the result of a free-association improvisation exercise. In several scenes, apropos of nothing, characters toss a football around while clad in tuxedos.
Despite, or rather, because of these flaws, “The Room” has become a beloved cult classic. Every month thousands of people attend midnight screenings of the film in theaters across the country. The crowd at the screening of “The Disaster Artist” which I attended clearly included several veterans of these screenings, who came dressed as characters from “The Room,” shouted quotes from it and threw plastic spoons at the screen. (It’s a thing, look it up.)
Franco’s film depicts the tumultuous production of “The Room,” as the cast and crew chafe under Wiseau’s tyrannical leadership. Wiseau and Sestero’s friendship is strained as the latter is forced to turn down other opportunities to continue with filming and grows increasingly frustrated with Wiseau’s secrecy about his background. Though clearly in his 40s, Wiseau repeatedly insists to Sestero, “I’m your age.” He provided the $6 million budget for “The Room” himself through a source that remains unexplained to this day.
The real-life Franco brothers convincingly play the unlikely best friends and collaborators. James Franco expertly captures Wiseau’s tone and mannerisms. He provides a convincing portrayal of a man whose fondest wish is simply to be appreciated and liked. In a case of truth being stranger than fiction, it is entirely possible that we may soon be hearing “Tommy Wiseau” and “Best Actor Oscar” in the same sentence. The supporting cast is also good, with Seth Rogen especially hilarious as script supervisor Sandy Schklair, who is grateful for his paycheck but increasingly nonplussed and baffled by Wiseau’s bizarre style.
Ultimately, “The Disaster Artist” is a funny and touching tribute to those who go their own way, and a reminder that sometimes things work out even when they don’t work out. It is well worth watching.
The Disaster Artist is Rated R for language and nudity, and currently playing in area theaters.