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James Franco’s Brilliantly Bad Starring Role

"The Disaster Artist" is a movie about an aspiring actor's blindspots and failures.

Courtesy of A24

What do Tommy Wiseau and James Franco have in common? Wiseau is the writer, director, producer, and star of The Room, the so-called “greatest bad movie ever made.” Franco plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, the new comedy about the making of The Room that he also directed and co-produced. Both are straight middle-aged white men with brown hair (The Disaster Artist calls the authenticity of Wiseau’s hair color into question). Both are wealthy, ambitious outspoken fans of James Dean. That’s where the apparent similarities end.

Franco is a creature of peculiar slickness. He broke in as burnout Daniel Desario (a stoned update of Henry Winkler’s Arthur Fonzarelli from Happy Days) on Freaks and Geeks—the clichéd but beloved high school period piece cancelled after one season. Its creator and executive producer (Paul Feig and Judd Apatow) and cast (Franco and Seth Rogan et al) have dominated Hollywood comedy in the decades since. Franco’s early big screen career alternated between commercial and art house roles. In summer he was Peter Parker’s frenemy Harry Osborn in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy. In winter he was the chef boyfriend of Neve Campbell’s ballet dancer in Robert Altman’s unduly obscure 2003 gem The Company. He could go low or high from the start.

Soon he turned out to be culturally amphibious. Whereas some celebrities might have exploited their fame to promote their hobbies (a lousy rock band, say, or a sideline in iron sculpting), Franco finished his degree at UCLA and then, as if to exorcise the demons of an unfulfilled AP English wunderkind, enrolled in graduate programs in literature, fiction, filmmaking, poetry, and who knows what else at Columbia, Yale, NYU, Brooklyn College, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. He kept acting throughout, including a stint on General Hospital that he characterized as performance art. MFA vs. SAG.

His credential-chasing yielded a book of short stories, Palo Alto, a plainspoken and undistinguished set of accounts of middle class high school hijinks, adapted for the screen by Gia Coppola in 2013 with Franco as a lecherous high school teacher; and a chapbook of poems, Strongest of the Litter, about, among other things, Hollywood actors, including, presumably, himself:

In fifty years
My sleep will be death,
I’ll go like the rest,
But I’ll have played
All the games and all the roles.

Mediocrity on the page didn’t preclude excellence on screen. Franco could anchor a tentpole action franchise like Planet of the Apes with charm, or exude surly brilliance as a charismatic thug in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. If his comedic performances were inescapably laddish, they were a symptom of the pervasive Judd Apatow aesthetic in which he was cradled. Franco’s directorial efforts, adapting two Faulkner novels (As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury) and one by Cormac McCarthy (Child of God), smacked again of the overgrown AP English student’s impulse to conjure a Southern gothic version of Masterpiece Theater. It’s therefore something of a surprise that The Disaster Artist has channelled the tendencies present in both Franco’s failures and his successes into a singularly beguiling meta-entertainment.

The role of Tommy Wiseau is perfect for Franco because Wiseau is the opposite of slick, though not for lack of trying. Wiseau’s origins (Poland?), age (early 60s?), and the source of his fortune (clothing imports? retail real estate? something shadier?) have been matters of speculation that he keeps secret. Whatever his genuine background, The Disaster Artist tells us that by the late 1990s Wiseau was living in San Francisco, driving a Mercedes, and taking acting classes. The film opens with Franco’s Wiseau crawling, slithering, and lunging across a stage attempting a volcanic version of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. Watching from the risers, his future co-star Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) sees something in him that’s absent in his other listless classmates. Talent wouldn’t exactly be the word for it.

Wiseau wanted what Franco has. Not fame and exposure, exactly, but a life realized on the screen, the feeling of having “played / All the games and all the roles.” On a whim, he and Sestero moved to West Hollywood, where Wiseau already had an apartment. Sestero got an agent and parts in commercials. Wiseau got nothing. When the impossibility of attaining even a fraction of what he what he wanted (like, say, being an extra) dawned on Wiseau, he undertook to make it for himself. Thus the elaborate, multi-million-dollar vanity project that is The Room.

I had never watched The Room before I saw The Disaster Artist. As Bissell relates in a 2010 Harpers profile of Wiseau, The Room is best viewed at midnight screenings among an intoxicated audience who ritually throw spoons at the screen. Watching it alone is accompanied by the indecorous sensation of being a voyeur, spiked with gag-inducing feeling of watching much too long, bad, soft porn scenes scored to bland R&B. There is the technical badness of The Room—a plot devoid of rational motivation, subplots that go nowhere, establishing shots that make no sense, mixing of digital and celluloid photography, bad green screen backgrounds, pointless jogging sequences, and why do the characters keep gathering up on the roof?—but the overwhelming, fascinating badness is the presence of Wiseau himself.

One interpretation of the greatness of Hamlet is that it’s a conventional revenge drama with a real human being trapped in the middle of it. The great badness of The Room is that Wiseau is a genuine human freak trapped in a world populated by barely professional actors. While all the others are doing their best to perform The Room’s incoherent adultery plot Wiseau strides through the nonsense trying to be an idealized version of himself. Every scene without him plays like mediocre television. Every scene of Wiseau has more in common with a Werner Herzog documentary. Noble as he tries to seem, Wiseau is unmistakably a fiend.

Franco understands this and marshals all his degree-mongering studiousness to play the autodidact devoid of self-awareness. (Do you count as an autodidact if what you teach yourself is all wrong?). The risk of the role is that playing Wiseau could amount to little more than doing an impression of him; the film itself risks becoming a docudrama. Its second half does faithfully recreate the making of The Room with several frame-by-frame re-enactments. The frame around that recreation is a conventional buddy comedy about Sestero and Wiseau’s friendship. James Franco is naturalistically unnatural, and his brother Dave is an occasionally bewildered straight man. Instead of an unbridled fiasco with a kook at its core, The Disaster Artist is a conventional comedy built around a brilliantly performed misfit.

The film’s ending is a little too neat and subtracts from the movie’s rigorously maintained balance of the square and the weird: Wiseau and Sestero experience a friendship-restoring epiphany that their failed melodrama is tremendously entertaining as an inadvertent comedy. But it has the virtue of getting things over with, before a surprise after the credits. Perhaps Franco’s two decades of résumé mongering has been in the service of harnessing the real freak he had inside all along.