“Oh, hi, Mark” is the unlikeliest sentence ever to become a cultural sensation. Maybe you’re among the disciples who have recited it during a midnight screening of “The Room,” the most famous late-night movie not named “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” If so, you’ll fall madly in love with “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s lively biopic about Tommy Wiseau, the oddball who made “The Room.” If you’re less familiar with the cult that surrounds that infamously awful film, prepare to encounter bizarro bliss.
Chances are you haven’t seen the dozen-some flicks that Franco has somehow found time to direct. His credits include “Child of God,” “Sal,” “In Dubious Battle” and a couple of William Faulkner adaptations ― none of which cracked $1 million at the box office, if released at all. Say what you will about Franco and the walking performance art that has become his life, but “The Disaster Artist” excels on almost every level. For someone who never actually took a break, it’s a hell of a comeback.
“Artist,” which screened at the ongoing Toronto Film Festival, begins in a small San Francisco acting class in 1998. A comely aspiring performer, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), delivers an expressionless scene from “Waiting for Godot.” Exasperated, the instructor asks who in the room can “really reveal themselves to the class.” The long-haired Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) rises. Reaching the stage, Tommy climbs a ladder and begins flailing around, yelling “Stellaaaaaaa” over and over ― an overblown emulation of Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The students sit in perplexed silence.
That’s how we meet the enigmatic man who would go on to make what has been dubbed one of the worst movies of all time. Soon enough, Greg and Tommy strike up a bromance and high-tail it to Los Angeles to launch Hollywood careers. They’ll end up making history ― just not the kind they expected.
The legend of Wiseau is duplicated here: Tommy is a man of infinite financial resources and an odd accent that sounds vaguely Eastern European, though he declines most inquiries about his personal life. When a casting director says he has a “malevolent presence” befitting characters like Frankenstein and Dracula, Tommy insists he is a hero type like James Dean. It’s amazing how much false confidence he has, a hallmark Franco leans into with exquisite uncanniness. This is a master-class performance.
Endearing and affectionate, “The Disaster Artist” laughs at and with Tommy, who remains oblivious to his surroundings and inappropriate in his actions. He claims to love “American football” but doesn’t know how to throw a ball; uninvited, he starts performing “Hamlet” for a producer (Judd Apatow) in the middle of a luxe restaurant. (The real Wiseau has endorsed the movie and appeared at festival screenings alongside Franco, fomenting a convenient narrative for the impending Oscar campaign.)
The first half of “The Disaster Artist,” focused almost exclusively on Tommy and Greg as they attempt to find Hollywood success, is broad and breezy. It’s the second half that truly sings. Facing endless rejection, Tommy opts to make his own movie, which, of course, becomes “The Room,” a gaudy love-triangle melodrama with a bundle of meaningless subplots. The cast of characters expands as Tommy hires actors and a crew: Seth Rogen plays a script supervisor, and Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, June Diane Raphael and Ari Graynor appear as thespians slogging through a baffling production on which none of the set design makes sense and the script changes daily.
It’s here that “The Disaster Artist” goes from decent to great. On the surface, it’s a long, uproarious joke about a clueless, idiosyncratic wannabe who’s in over his head. Underneath, it’s an ode to the audacity of doing whatever it takes to accomplish a dream. Our protagonist is a man making a movie who seems to know nothing about movies.
Screenwriting partners Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also penned ”(500) Days of Summer” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” could have marshaled an edgier version of this tale ― one that uses cruel humor to paint Wiseau as an even bigger weirdo. (They used Greg Sestero’s tell-all book of the same name as source material.) Instead, Neustadter and Weber handed Franco a warmhearted sparkler, which is a far harder accomplishment in comedy. Case in point: During the shooting of “The Room,” Tommy needs dozens of takes and an empty plastic bottle in his hand to nail a line of dialogue spanning 21 short words (the famous “I did not hit her. It’s not true. It’s bullshit! I did not hit her. I did not! Oh, hi, Mark”). The moment is intercut with the crew’s flabbergasted reactions as the pressure Tommy places on himself mounts. He wants so badly to be good, but he can hardly even remember the pronoun that begins the monologue.
Though Franco has obvious talent, it’s easy to see why he responded to Wiseau’s life story. Franco has thrown so much against so many walls over the past decade, becoming enough of a punch line to appreciate the go-for-broke artistry (or lack thereof) that Wiseau poured into his vanity project. He’s the perfect person to exalt this strange cult figure: In “The Disaster Artist,” Tommy never becomes too much of a caricature, even if the film’s final moments feel trite. This is a giddy affair about a catastrophe that morphed into anything but.
“The Disaster Artist” opens in theaters Dec. 1.