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‘The Disaster Artist’ anything but

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James Franco shines behind, in front of the camera

Considered by many to be the greatest bad movie ever made, “The Room” has become a beloved cult classic in the decade-plus since its release in 2003. The brainchild of enigmatic auteur Tommy Wiseau – who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film – “The Room” is a cinematic legend, with claim to the title of “best worst movie.” And Wiseau – whose age, birthplace and financial circumstances all remain largely unknown – has become a myth in his own right.

So obviously, it makes sense to make a movie about the making of that movie based on the book about the movie written by one of its stars. That is, it doesn’t really make sense, until you watch it, when it really does.

“The Disaster Artist” – directed by James Franco and based on the book of the same name by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell – is the story of “The Room.” More specifically, it’s the story of Wiseau, also played by Franco in a delightfully meta reflection of the source material. It’s a meditation on the nature of the movie business, a reflection on the limitations of passion. It is funny and surprisingly insightful, creating a broad cast of characters with complex and layered interpersonal dynamics.

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, “The Little Hours”) is an aspiring actor in San Francisco in the late 1990s. In one of his acting classes, he encounters Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious guy with a tough-to-place accent, an off-putting manner and an utter sense of abandon on stage. The two become friends, even though Tommy is adamant about never talking about who he is, where he came from or anything at all about him.

Still, Greg moves with Tommy to Los Angeles in a plan to break into the movie business. But it’s only when they decide to make an opportunity for themselves that things start to move for them. The film – written by Tommy, who will also direct and star (while self-financing the project) – is “The Room,” a story about a successful man named Johnny (Tommy) whose life bizarrely falls apart when his girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend Mark (Greg).

Tommy and Greg cast the film, hire a crew and begin to shoot. What follows is an absurdist breakdown of the filmmaking process, as Tommy replaces experience and ability with passion and bluster. The relationship between the two friends comes under strain as Greg gets closer to his new girlfriend Amber (Allison Brie, TV’s “GLOW”). There are assorted struggles on the set; Tommy’s ego causes friction with his co-stars (particularly his on-screen love interest Lisa, played by Juliette (Ari Graynor, TV’s “I’m Dying Up Here”)) and creative team guys like script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogen, “Sausage Party”) and director of photography Raphael (Paul Scheer, TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”).

Still, even with all of these issues and obstacles, the movie is finished. And “The Room” would go on to carve out its own niche in cinematic history – though not at all in the way its visionary leader anticipated.

Meta doesn’t even begin to cover it with this one. Movies about making movies are nothing new, but the combination of source material – a book about the process written by one of the stars – and filmmaker takes this to a different place. In the end, it all comes down to James Franco.

See, what he’s done here might actually be kind of unprecedented. He’s directing himself playing a role-within-a-role - a director who was also directing himself as an actor. It’s Tommys all the way down, “The Room”-ception, layer upon layer of characterization rendered all the stranger by the baseline inscrutability and weirdness of Wiseau.

(There are reports that Franco directed significant chunks of the movie in character as Wiseau, which takes us yet another level deeper. Such a move is a huge gamble – the potential for, well, disaster is awfully high with a project like this; why add another degree of difficulty? Happily, it all works. Works wonderfully, in fact.)

Obviously, James Franco is the star here; his mumbling, muttering, barely-comprehensible Tommy is fantastic to watch (and a shockingly accurate depiction of the real-life Wiseau). The sense of Quixotic incompetence is beautifully, almost tenderly captured. Dave Franco has never been better than he is as Greg; there’s a vulnerability to the portrayal that feels incredibly honest. And there’s no doubt that the brotherly connection between Francos informed the Tommy-Greg dynamic, turning potentially unpleasant weirdness into sweet and awkward eccentricities.

Truth be told, it’s an awesome cast across the board. Graynor is wonderful as the put-upon, yet determined Juliette. Rogen is in full bro-quip mode. Nobody does abrasive quite like Scheer. Brie does some nice work. And there are so many notables in roles large and small – Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver and Nathan Fielder all turn up as actors in “The Room;” big names like Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith and Megan Mullally turn up too. Bob Odenkirk, Hannibal Burress, Jason Mantzoukas … the list goes on and on.

Movies about Hollywood almost always have their satiric edge, but few truly capture the impact of failure. There’s a moment early in the film where a producer (played by an uncredited Judd Apatow) tells Tommy in no uncertain terms that wanting it isn’t enough. Lip service has been paid to that idea in the movies, but it’s extremely rare to have it play out as such.

It's no surprise that “The Disaster Artist” is funny, but what is surprising is how moving it can be. There’s something deeply compelling about the pursuit of one’s dreams above all else … and something heartbreaking about the failure to achieve them.

[5 out of 5]

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