The Room is the most popular cult film of the last twenty years, frequently described as the “best worst movie ever made”, and subject of The Disaster Artist, a half-memoir, half-procedural about the making of the movie and the friendship at its center, both on and off screen, between Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero. After reading the book when it was released in 2013, James Franco—who hadn’t actually seen The Room yet—snapped up Wiseau’s and Sestero’s life rights, which leads to the film adaptation of The Disaster Artist. It’s at once a very different story from the book, and entirely the same story about friendship, dreamers, and the incredibly bizarre making of The Room. Franco’s performance as Wiseau is his best in years, but The Disaster Artist is also his most accessible film as a director. It feels like Franco managed to harness all his interest and energy in one direction (finally), and the result is hilarious and genuinely touching.
The film speeds through the early years of Wiseau’s and Sestero’s friendship, introducing Tommy as a weirdo in Greg’s acting class in San Francisco who inspires the stage-frightened Greg to get out of his insecurity bubble. From there, Tommy and Greg move to Los Angeles and pinky-swear to support one another in their mutual dream of achieving stardom. Greg is played by Dave Franco, and the real life brothers manage the sometimes thorny friendship of Tommy and Greg incredibly well, capturing both the unconditional support and the eventual hurt and anger between the two men.
However, The Disaster Artist drops one of the core revelations of the book, which is how Wiseau used money to manipulate Sestero, and how genuinely creepy and potentially dangerous he seemed at times (at least according to Sestero, who co-wrote the book). Tommy’s money comes up in the movie as a joke, just one facet of the Mystery Of Tommy Wiseau—no one knows how old he is, where he comes from, or how he acquired his wealth. But in the book Wiseau catches Sestero at a low moment, using money to lure him to act in The Room, by which point, their friendship had—again according to Sestero—already soured. In the movie, however, Greg is a willing and enthusiastic participant in The Room from the beginning, and their friendship only goes sideways after Tommy costs Greg an opportunity to act in Malcolm in the Middle.
Before the Midnight Madness screening of The Disaster Artist, I spent some time around Sestero and Wiseau at a premiere party, and today they seem like genuine friends. While Sestero is more reserved than Wiseau, it’s not hard, when seeing them together, to see years of real friendship between them, with the way Sestero keeps them on schedule while Wiseau makes sure Sestero is involved in conversations. (For the record, Wiseau did the butt-belt thing with TWO BELTS. He is truly an Original.) It makes me wonder, though, if the film took out Wiseau’s manipulation of Sestero in order to better reflect how the men are today, rather than how they were a decade ago. It changes the story, makes it less sad and dark, but it doesn’t hurt the film, which still captures how Wiseau could be spiteful and jealous and how Sestero boiled in resentment and anger.
Also, after observing Tommy Wiseau in the wild, then immediately seeing Franco’s performance as Tommy, it really underlines how Franco is NOT doing an impression. He is truly performing a character, capturing many of Wiseau’s quirks, like his mysterious accent and distinctive laugh, but he never settles for shallow imitation. Tommy is a man of big dreams, hidden sadness, a bad temper, and jealous disposition, but also is generous and forgiving, but is still an asshole for keeping Greg from taking a day off to work on a more legitimate project. Wiseau is a complicated figure, and Franco nails his performance.
You don’t need to know The Room to enjoy The Disaster Artist, and though the film is HILARIOUS, it’s never mocking or mean to Wiseau or The Room. The cast is filled with real-life fans of The Room, from an introduction from famous fans like Kristen Bell and Adam Scott, to a cameo from Judd Apatow; Jason Mantzoukas, Paul Scheer, and June Diane Raphael, hosts of the “How Did This Get Made” podcast, all have roles, too. A different, darker version of the story could focus more on money and manipulation and jealousy, but the story Franco chooses to tell is one of friends and dreamers and finding success in failure. The Disaster Artist is a love letter to movies and the people who dream big enough to make them, even when they have no clue what they’re doing.