Watching The Disaster Artist, James Franco's new movie about the making of the wonderfully horrible cult film The Room, is not a lot unlike watching The Room itself. Especially if you're watching it with a theater full of people who've seen that 2003 picture—seen it perhaps many times more than once—and can shout out whole clumps of dialogue from it. At midnight screenings in major cities where the movie has been attracting devotees for more than a decade, footballs fly down the aisles and cheap plastic spoons fill the air, along with hooted echoes of the movie's many deathless lines. ("You are tearing me apart, Lisa!" "I definitely have breast cancer." "Hi doggy.")
As written, produced and directed by its star, the entirely untalented Tommy Wiseau, The Room is an aggressively awful film. It has no redeeming virtues: Its plot, its dialogue, its performances, its wretched scene-blocking—all are very bad. And so The Disaster Artist, directed by its star, James Franco, immediately prompts comparison to Ed Wood, Tim Burton's 1994 tribute to the creator of Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and many other entertainingly terrible movies. But Wood's complete lack of talent (if not passion) was compounded by a paucity of money for making his films. Wiseau does not have this problem: Among the several mysteries surrounding the man (how old is he? What planet is he from?), the most intriguing is the source of his money, of which he has lots. And yet, as loaded as he may be, he still made a cruddy movie. Which makes him an even worse filmmaker than Ed Wood. Which is really, really saying something.
Franco was drawn to Wiseau's story by a highly amusing memoir of the film's creation by its costar, Greg Sestero (collaborating with Tom Bissell). Franco turned this book over to the screenwriting team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now), and they shaped it into an affectionate buddy comedy that still conveys Wiseau's distinctively warped sensibility. It's a lot of fun, even if you've never seen The Room (although you really should).
Franco's movie begins in a San Francisco acting class back in the late 1990s, where Sestero (Dave Franco, James's brother) first meets Wiseau (brother James with facial prosthetics and Tommy-style black-dyed mop and oversize clothing). Greg is impressed by his new friend: he's an awful actor, it's true, but he doesn't care—he wants to conquer Hollywood, and he's fearless. Greg and Tommy make a "pinkie pact" to always support each other.
Soon these two move to LA. Before long, Greg has acquired an agent. Tommy has begun writing a script. Nobody cares. "They don't want me," Tommy says, mournfully. "Nobody give me chance, my whole life." (Franco does a wonderful job of approximating Wiseau's unplaceable accent, stringing together words that nod off well before reaching their final consonant. ("It's import'n.")
Greg suggests he and Tommy should make their own movie. Tommy loves this idea, and goes about realizing it in all the wrong ways. Oblivious to the standard method of assembling film and audio equipment for shooting a movie—you rent it—Tommy, at enormous expense, just buys it. Torn between shooting on 35mm film or hi-def video, Tommy improvises a special rig that allows him to shoot both at once – again, at enormous expense.
The shoot is chaotic. Because Tommy is incapable of remembering even the simplest line of dialogue, the movie's most famous scene ("Oh, hi Mark") requires more than 60 takes. The notorious sex scene, featuring Tommy's frighteningly weird physique ("I need to show my ass to sell movie"), alarms Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor), the actress playing the two-timing Lisa; and the star's strangely hunched carnal technique baffles script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen): "Doesn't he know where her vagina is?"
The movie hits most of The Room's unforgettable low points: more weird scenes ("cheep-cheep-cheep!"), more weird sex (on a staircase), more surreal characters (Josh Hutcherson as the creepy teen Denny), and sudden outbreaks of football-tossing that continue to defy explanation. I wish there'd been time to examine the framed photos of plastic spoons in the dismal living room, but you can't have everything.
What must Tommy Wiseau be making of all this? Evidently, he long ago embraced the bitter truth that the whole country thinks his movie sucks. Now he pretends to have set out to make a comedy in the first place. At the many personal appearances he undertakes, people seem willing to cut him a break on this. As long as he never makes another movie ever again.