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James Franco, centre, in The Disaster Artist.

Justina Mintz/The Globe and Mail

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Disaster Artist
Written by
Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Directed by
James Franco
Starring
James Franco, Dave Franco, Alison Brie and Seth Rogen
Genre
Biopic
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2017

In late 2012, like many a film fan with too much time and too little self-respect, I fell into a strange love affair with The Room.

The movie's attractions are difficult to pinpoint for those who haven't experienced it unspool in real time, ideally in a packed theatre, a good five or six drinks into the evening. Essentially, the 2003 melodrama is a massive, and massively strange, vanity project for Tommy Wiseau, its writer, director, star and producer who, prior to the film's production, had no experience in the industry whatsoever.

Following the downward spiral of Johnny (Wiseau) after his girlfriend seduces his best friend, Mark (Wiseau's real-life BFF Greg Sestero), the film is, in every way, awful. Wiseau has a tin ear for dialogue, he can barely utter a line himself that's halfway convincing and his green cast flounder under his non-existent direction. But it is a singular, even transcendent, experience to watch The Room among fellow aficionados of trash cinema.

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Catching a midnight screening at New York's Sunshine Cinema five years ago, I felt simultaneously punished and pleasured – the audience howled at every abrupt edit, every ludicrous twist, every what-the-what set design choice (so many pictures of spoons, so few reasons as to why). It is a film you both embrace and endure.

Which, coincidentally or not, is how I feel watching many of James Franco's films. Most audiences know Franco as a Judd Apatow regular, or for his forays into superhero blockbusters. But he's also improbably directed 25 features and documentaries, not counting TV episodes and shorts, and I think I'm the only dummy on Earth who's sat through most of them – Child of God, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and almost two dozen others you've never heard of – before they've disappeared from the face of the Earth. With precious few exceptions, Franco's directorial efforts reek of ambition that outstretches purpose, and seem engineered through sheer force of maniacal will. He's a better-looking, better-connected and only slightly more nuanced Tommy Wiseau.

So the idea of Franco directing and starring in The Disaster Artist, a potentially terrible movie about the making of a certifiably terrible movie, seems like an idea either born of malice or some nugget of meta-level genius. Fortunately for most audiences – although perhaps unfortunately for midnight-movie sadomasochists – The Disaster Artist leans heavily toward the latter, its sublime storytelling and central performances courtesy of Franco (as Wiseau) and his brother, Dave (as Sestero), twisting and then elevating The Room's ultimate legacy into something approaching high art.

Franco could have easily taken a cruel route here, belittling and exploiting Wiseau's efforts. After all, that's what midnight audiences, myself included, have been doing for years. As much as some might profess we're laughing with Wiseau, we're mostly laughing straight at him, spotlighting his failures as evidence of our infinite superiority. (Either because he's developed a savvy business acumen or a thick skin, or both, Wiseau's played along ever since the film's cackle-filled premiere, earning a tidy living in the process.) Yet Franco opts for a more compassionate path.

As Wiseau, Franco expertly mimics the wannabe filmmaker's many tics and unplaceable accent – Wiseau has never divulged his age, background or anything other than his name, which might not even be Tommy Wiseau – but also imbues him with a genuine sense of pathos. Franco's Disaster Artist hero is a dreamer, a schemer and most certainly out of his mind, but entirely relatable. Wiseau has a vision and the unmitigated passion to drive it forward, and he wants to bring his best friend, Sestero, along for the ride. Who wouldn't, if they actually had Wiseau's courage of conviction?

Franco delicately unwraps layer after layer of poignancy as he pushes his narrative forward. When Wiseau and Sestero clash – the baby-faced actor becomes the de facto voice of reason on the film's chaotic set, thanks to every disastrous decision Wiseau makes – The Disaster Artist reveals itself as a nuanced portrait of the jealousies that arise when the creative process goes haywire. It is hilarious and heartbreaking all at once, especially when factoring in Dave Franco's performance, a beautiful game of shadows in which he's forced to play the more respected artist against his older, more famous brother (who, just to kick things up a notch, method-directed the film as Wiseau).

This being a James Franco film, though, it is still peppered with his favoured idiosyncrasies. It is a treat, although no surprise, to see known Franco accomplices such as Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow and Alison Brie (Dave's real-life wife) pop up in the margins. But it is also strikingly unnecessary for, say, the film's hagiographic introduction, in which yet more Franco friends (Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, J.J. Abrams) shoehorn themselves into the proceedings to testify as to The Room's backward brilliance. We get it, James Franco, you know a lot of people, hooray for you. Similarly, the film's jabs at the Hollywood ecosystem seem easy, even hypocritical in the hands of such an inside man.

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Yet maybe only an insider such as James Franco, an insatiable artist with as many friends as flaws, is equipped to tell Tommy Wiseau's story. From one disaster artist, to another.

The Disaster Artist opens on Dec. 1 in Toronto, before expanding across the country on Dec. 8.

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