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Review: In ‘Disaster Artist,’ James Franco retraces the steps of the best bad movie ever made

Dave Franco and James Franco in “The Disaster Artist.” (Justina Mintz / A24)
Dave Franco and James Franco in “The Disaster Artist.” (Justina Mintz / A24)

To be a cultural phenomenon, you have to form an active and engaged fan base and have a strong duration in your appeal. Above all, you need the bandwagon effect, making people like your creation largely because others do.

In movie terms, this means either making a movie very good or remarkably, frighteningly, awesomely bad. Like Tommy Wiseau’s legendary so-bad-it’s-almost-good-but-it’s-still-deeply-irrevocably-bad film “The Room.” It is a complicated, plotless romance where things just happen randomly, and the main character, played by star/director/screenwriter/producer Wiseau, shoots himself in the head instead of living happily ever after. So, sort of a comedy.

Like it or not, “The Room” has lived on through midnight screenings since 2003, a strategy formerly reserved for good films like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Slowly what began as an “I wanna make a movie” movie became a cult hit.

Now it achieves a second life as the basis for “The Disaster Artist.” The new film, doing a two-step between homage and satire, ironically comments on the making of its shabby inspiration. While it’s no gem, it works out better than the first. You can squint and see where it’s going, even if it doesn’t quite get there.

The film is presented as a creepy bromance inspired by real life. At the center are two friends who move from San Francisco to Hollywood in pursuit of their dreams.

Young Greg Sestero, played with babe in the woods naiveti by Dave Franco, wants to be on the stage or screen. Rehearsing at a local acting studio, he meets a prop-throwing, dialogue-chewing, Euro-sounding scene burglar named Tommy Wiseau (brother James Franco), whose self-confidence more than equals his skill, to put it kindly.

James Franco plays Wiseau in full Brando method acting style. Not only does he look and sound uncannily like the real-life Wiseau, he did the starring, producing and directing balancing act in this film, as well. When Sestero compliments his energy onstage, Wiseau seems reserved and nonchalant. That may be the greatest performance of his life.

He persuades his admiring new friend “Babyface” to run away with him to his spare apartment in Los Angeles, over his mother’s suspicious objections. Wiseau predicts they will launch unforgettable film careers, which they very clumsily do.

The pair develop what appears to be a childish, platonic best friend bond, but it’s any viewer’s call as to what’s going on. Wiseau throws fits of petty resentment when Sestero discusses moving out of the apartment they share and hooking up with a nice girl he met. In the film as in real life, Wiseau is a secretive man of mystery. He has a bottomless pit of money, never mind why or how. He denies being from anywhere other than New Orleans though he speaks in an accent that says Warsaw.

After the pair are turned down repeatedly in auditions, Sestero daydreams, “I wish we could just make our own movie.” “Dat great idea,” Wiseau replies.

The movie offers a guided tour of Los Angeles landmarks and film world institutions that played a part in the project’s production. The cast is packed with extended cameo appearances by Seth Rogan, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Sharon Stone and other surprise guests as the cast and crew of the maddening, endlessly ongoing shoot. They are topped by Judd Apatow and Bryan Cranston, playing themselves to the hilt.

“The Disaster Artist” is technically very competent. Like “The Room,” this also feels and looks like it was made for cable access on a shoestring budget, but this time the cheesy ambience is deliberate. Of course the image quality is nothing special, nor the sound; it’s expected to represent the making of a bad movie. And in an end credits sequence, we see moments from the original film reshot to precision here, right down to the amateurish butt-baring love scene played by Wiseau in 2003 and duplicated by Franco. Suffice it to say, this is the best “The Room” can ever look.

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