“You can be called Mark, like that guy from that movie, Mark Damon.” That’s Tommy Wiseau telling his friend Greg Sestero his vision for the best/worst movie ever made, “The Room.”
In Sestero’s book “The Disaster Artist,” which tells the story of how Greg met Tommy and came to make “The Room,” there’s a wonderful chapter in which Greg takes Tommy to see “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The movie is about an enchanting fraud, a mysterious guy who poses as one identity and seduces his way into becoming a close friend to the protagonist, only for things to turn violent and deadly when he’s exposed as a phony and a shell of a real person. Tommy sees the movie and is inspired, and he goes on to write “The Room.” But Greg sees it and thinks, Ripley IS Tommy.
Tommy Wiseau is an elusive, strange figure. His inscrutable Eastern European accent and broken English, his unruly jet black hair and his bizarre fashion sense of vests, jangly keys and studded black belts just scratch the surface of his mystique. He made the worst movie ever made and has become a cult sensation for it, but is he a genius or a lunatic?
Sestero’s “The Disaster Artist” plays into Tommy’s mystique and never gives you all the answers about him. It jumps around from before and after they started making “The Room,” and as a result, you see the disaster unfolding before you.
James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” which he wrote, directed and stars in as Wiseau, merely treats Tommy as unusual. It’s a film about friendship persevering in the face of hardship and failure rather than a portrait specifically of Tommy himself, and Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” doesn’t examine the mystery that is Tommy Wiseau, but instead treats him with a sort of awed, admiring reverence. The opening scene of the movie is a collection of modern comedy stars who are all part of “The Room’s” cult of fans, each of them gushing about Tommy as though there wasn’t debate about whether he was a genius. And the rest of the film is a chronological retelling of “The Room’s” journey to the screen, even complete with the old cliche of an audience full of people giving a standing ovation as a humbled Tommy stands on stage during the film’s finale.
What’s missing from Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” though is hindsight. It isn’t aware of the trainwreck just waiting to happen. We’re never teased with the nightmare of shooting “The Room” or hints at the cult that it would spiral into. Most biopics suffer when you have characters who know they’re making history, but this one might actually benefit from it, and the story structure of Sestero’s book “The Disaster Artist” is a good indication as to how. We know about Tommy’s crazed behavior before Greg does when he first meets him, and it only amplifies Tommy’s potential insanity and even danger.
Franco plays Tommy with a spot-on accent and carefully observed cadence in his voice (even if he doesn’t particularly look like Wiseau). But his performance goes beyond an impersonation to the point that we sympathize with his character’s passion, his enthusiasm and his spirit. His method acting performance is best served when Tommy is on set, and we see behind the scenes of the countless takes it took for Tommy to even poorly deliver one of the film’s more famous, clunky lines, “I did not hit her. I did naaahhhtt. Oh hi Mark.” In fact the real reason to see “The Disaster Artist” is because Franco and company seem to have remade about 60 percent of “The Room” in full, and it’s about as good of a fan version of a classic you’re likely to see.
But while “The Room” is a cult classic because it displays Wiseau’s bizarre, auteurist vision, and Sestero’s “The Disaster Artist” finds a way to take us inside his mind as best as anyone can, Franco’s film doesn’t share the same personality.