It seems only natural to me that the man behind The Ape (2005) would find a natural sort of kinship with Tommy Wiseau the creator of the cult phenomenon The Room (2003). As much as James Franco is mainstream Hollywood there is something “off” about him. When I think of James Franco, I don’t think of Freaks & Geeks, I think specifically of his facial expression in the scene from Nicolas Cage’s film Sonny (2002) in which Franco, in his role as a prostitute, performs penetrative sex on a woman with a policeman’s baton. Franco is off-kilter, weird, uncomfortable, and at times endearing. All of these traits made him an excellent Wiseau, who also seems to possess many of these same attributes.
The Disaster Artist (2017) could easily be compared to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Both films follow outsider artists who, through no fault of their own, author some of the most enjoyable bad movies ever made. Beyond just the films of Wood and Wiseau is a striking similarity in their public personas where each, in different ways, places themselves on the margins of society. You want to root for these guys, you want to know them, and, most of all, you want to know as much about them as possible. Their very character defies the norms of Hollywood celebrity and, in reenacting their lives, so are the norms of performance analyzed and critiqued.
James Franco isn’t as gifted as Tim Burton is in creating images but he does know how to imbue his projects with a degree of empathy that might be lacking if the project were in another director’s hands. When I saw The Disaster Artist in theaters back in 2017 I was relieved that the audience felt as much compassion for Franco’s version of Wiseau as I did. I mean, there was tons of laughter, but the quick beat changes all seemed to land just as intended which is no small feat.
The Disaster Artist, by telling the story of the making of The Room, isn’t so much a film about history or the past as a superficial reading may suggest. There’s the promise of accessibility at the core of The Disaster Artist which makes it a tale worth telling. The cinema should be open to everyone as spectators or in terms of production. This is what The Disaster Artist really celebrates.