SXSW Review: The Disaster Artist
“The Disaster Artist,” a comedy documenting the creation of the cult-classic film “The Room,” often called “the worst movie ever made,” received a standing ovation from a crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, where the film screened for South By Southwest as a work in progress.
Director and star James Franco, who plays the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, was on hand along with producing partner Seth Rogen (who has a role as an exasperated script supervisor in the film) and Franco’s brother Dave, who plays Wiseau’s best friend and “The Room” co-star Greg Sestero.
(The actual Tommy Wiseau an Greg Sestero were in attendance as well, receiving a standing ovation themselves as they took the stage for a post-show Q&A.)
The film, based on the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever” by Sestero and Tom Bissell, chronicles the meeting of Wiseau, a mysterious man with an inscrutable accent and long black hair who looks much older than he says he is, and Greg, a fresh-faced 19-year-old struggling to make it as an actor San Francisco in the late ’90s.
Tommy and Greg become friends–in Tommy’s case, Greg is really his only friend–and move to Los Angeles to make it big as actors, despite Tommy’s eccentric behavior and his cryptic warnings to Greg to not tell anyone anything about him and his increasing jealousy of seemingly anything Greg gets that he doesn’t, like an agent, or something that steals Greg’s attention, like a girlfriend.
After they both struggle to find work, Tommy vows to write a film for he and Greg to star in and, with Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” as his inspiration, Tommy bangs out the script for “The Room” and digs into what one character calls a “bottomless pit” of money to produce his “All-American” vision his way, including the unorthodox practice of buying film equipment over leasing it and using it to shoot film and HD video side-by-side.
Tommy himself and the script for the film baffle crew members, including the script supervisor and de facto director Sandy (Rogen) and director of photography Raphael (Paul Scheer), who both nearly quit over Tommy’s outrageous behavior, only to be talked out of it by Greg, the checks that are still clearing, and the notion that no one will see the film anyway.
Of course, the film saw the light of day in 2003 and became a midnight sensation thanks to Tommy’s paying to keep it in theaters (to qualify for the Academy Awards) and an infamous, ominous billboard that lorded over Hollywood for more than a decade.
Easily his best film as a director to date (most of them are really weird and terrible), James Franco also disappears incredibly into Tommy, making him more than just a weird accent and greasy black hair, but also leaving the mystery of Tommy effectively intact. Sure, the audience might want to know some simple things like where Tommy came from, where he gets his money, and just how old he is–but the real Wiseau has never publicly revealed that either.
Franco’s wonderful performance, like the film itself, is easily on par with the Johnny Depp-Tim Burton biopic “Ed Wood,” a career-best turn for both, about a delusional, never-give-up director of terrible-yet-sincere movies that share DNA with “The Room.”
The question remains if “The Disaster Artist,” still technically not complete and a little scraggly in the middle, will play to a crowd that isn’t familiar with “The Room” and all of its foibles. The audience at SXSW was certainly made up of devotees (myself included), loudly cheering and laughing at every recreated line and situation (the original film screened right after the Q&A wrapped up…I didn’t stay for that).
Regardless, “The Disaster Artist” is delightfully hilarious and, like the inimitable Tommy Wiseau, has genuine heart.