The audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival’s screenings for Midnight Madness, the festival’s genre-focused thread, are typically more like those you’d find at a concert than a cinematheque. When Nicolas Cage turned up for the midnight premiere of Mom and Dad, in which he plays a meek suburban father who is inexplicably possessed by the urge to violently murder his own children, he was greeted by such raucous applause that he held up his arms and soaked it in like an emperor.
But even by Midnight Madness standards, the crowd at last night’s world premiere of The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s film about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, was electric—the most visceral excitement I can remember feeling in that room since the 2006 premiere of Borat. (That screening was itself a disaster, and had to be cancelled when the projector broke and not even former projectionist Michael Moore could repair it.) An enormous inflatable football bounced around the crowd, periodically smacking unaware audience members in the face; saving a seat for a colleague felt a little like fending off a pack of (polite, Canadian) wolves. It’s hard to imagine an audience more primed to love a movie about The Room, the legendarily terrible movie whose astronomical badness has inspired a devoted cult—or one more prepared to recognize its flaws, should Franco and co. have fucked it up.
Reader, they did not fuck it up. The Disaster Artist is a riot—and, paradoxically considering its subject matter, the best and most assured movie Franco has ever directed. In the lead role, he nails Wiseau’s thickly unplaceable Eastern European accent (he refuses to say where he is from, implausibly insisting he was born in New Orleans), but his portrayal never slides into caricature—no mean feat, considering that Wiseau is virtually a freestanding caricature on his own. When the two took the stage together after the movie, Franco occasionally slipped back into his Wiseau voice, and if you’d closed your eyes it would have been difficult to distinguish between the two.
The Room is a movie that people laugh at and not with, and The Disaster Artist, adapted from the book by Wiseau’s co-star Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, leans into the more absurd aspects of its creation. The movie-industry regulars Wiseau drafts to work on his passion project, led by Seth Rogen as script supervisor and frequent shadow director Sandy Schklair, are aghast at Wiseau’s bizarre methods; at one point, Wiseau insists on shooting an alley scene on a set rather than in the identical real alley behind the studio, because “This real Hollywood movie.” But they keep cashing his checks, secure in the knowledge that it’s unlikely the project will ever be completed, let alone seen. (The underlying joke is that, for most of them, it will become the only movie they’re known for.) The sweetness at The Disaster Artist’s core is the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero, played by Franco’s brother Dave, which functions much the way the relationship between an eccentric director and his star does in Ed Wood—as a reminder that the protagonists’ lack of talent and/or self-awareness should not deny the possibility of empathizing with them. In the movie’s most poignant scene, an acting teacher tells Wiseau that with his accent and his looks, he’s best suited to villain types, and Tommy insists, “I’m hero.”
The Disaster Artist does finesse The Room’s evolution from catastrophic sincerity to beloved kitsch, which happens too fast to examine Wiseau’s path to accepting that his movie has become famous for reasons diametrically opposed to the ones he made it for. And it glosses over The Room’s ugly misogyny, which would be more pronounced if Wiseau had been remotely competent as an actor, writer, or director. The enduring culture of appreciation around the movie exists in a world where there’s no danger of taking The Room at face value, and The Disaster Artist does away with that tension altogether. Franco’s Tommy repeatedly insists that “Acting is truth,” and in the post-screening Q&A, the real Sestero described the movie as “terrifyingly true.” But The Disaster Artist prints the legend, and that’s more fun than the truth.