The 2003 film The Room has a reputation as the worst film ever made.
A vanity project gone wrong, it was made by an independently wealthy Polish American film buff named Tommy Wiseau, and still screens regularly around the world for audiences seeking a so-bad-it’s-good fix.
If you haven’t bought it online or made it one of the regular cult screenings in cinemas, you can’t understand just how inept a feature film can be.
It has boilerplate dialogue, flimsy sets, a rooftop location with a dodgy green screen backdrop of San Francisco, and a cliche-ridden, barely coherent plot about a man whose fiance cheats on him with his best friend.
Think Douglas Sirk crossed with Melrose Place as a community TV show that never gets beyond the pilot stage.
But at the centre of the mess, in the lead role, is the expressionless presence of Wiseau himself — a slightly stooped, wiry figure with long, greasy rock star hair and a lazy eye, who delivers all his lines with an off-putting lack of affect, even when he’s shouting in anguish, like his acting role model James Dean.
The Disaster Artist, a film about the making of The Room based on the memoir of the same name by actor Greg Sestero, delves beneath the unintentionally comic surface to find a thinly veiled cry for help.
Directed by James Franco, who also plays Wiseau, it’s scripted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, a duo famous for romantic films like 500 Days of Summer. Which makes sense, because The Disaster Artist is on one level the story of a bromance.
It’s about Tommy and Greg meeting in acting class, sharing Tommy’s flat in Los Angeles and trying to break into the business.
Then, when Greg (played by Franco’s brother Dave) falls in love with a woman he meets in a bar, Tommy retreats into himself and channels the trauma into the story of The Room.
Franco reveals Wiseau’s loneliness
With clear echoes of other films about doomed homoerotic attractions, like Behind the Candelabra, Beau Travail and even Death in Venice, Franco’s film becomes a perceptive tragicomedy.
His instinct as director — using low-budget naturalism so the absurdity of what’s happening is starkly apparent — works well, as does his performance of dazed, stoner blankness and slurred Euro speech.
It initially seems like he’s doing an impression for a joke, but darker undertones are revealed as Tommy becomes a tyrant on set.
What Franco’s performance brings out is a sense of emotional pain that’s perhaps not obvious in the real Tommy Wiseau.
That said, his staging of The Room’s shambolic and tortuous shoot is often a hilarious spectacle, and includes shot-for-shot recreations of some of the more inadvertently funny scenes (you won’t need to have seen it to enjoy them).
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Ari Graynor and Jacki Weaver feature among the cast and crew, all mirroring our own disbelief, embarrassment and confusion.
Wiseau, meanwhile, remains an enigma.
True to life, Franco’s on-screen version of the man reveals scarce details about his past. He never explains the source of his Eastern European accent, or his multi-million-dollar fortune — described by a bank teller in the film as a “bottomless pit”.
But a brief mention of a road accident suggests his mind has been left slightly scrambled.
What’s most essential to Franco and his screenwriters is Wiseau’s loneliness and inability to win the respect of those around him, despite often lavish displays of largesse.
For the crowds that still flock to screenings of The Room to laugh and shake their heads at his obliviousness, Franco’s thoughtful tribute offers an affectionate and moving backstory.