James Franco directs and stars in one of the year’s best films – about one of the worst movies ever made

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Made by a famously flighty director-star and taking its inspiration from one of the worst movies of all-time, “The Disaster Artist” could have been a disaster itself.

It is anything but. “The Disaster Artist” is a sweet, emotionally engaging tribute to friendship, the movies and the importance of dreams. In telling the story of how Tommy Wiseau made the 2003 cinematic calamity “The Room,” James Franco — a bit of a disaster artist himself — connects with a character on screen like he never has before, and lets us see how Wiseau went from Hollywood nobody to cult legend.

Ah, Tommy Wiseau. If you don’t know the man behind the blacked out shades who made tuxedo football a midnight movie phenomenon, it helps to have a working knowledge of him and “The Room” before taking in “The Disaster Artist.” You may have heard of “The Room” or watched a few clips from the movie on YouTube, and you can certainly enjoy the absurdity of “The Disaster Artist” without having seen the original film. But knowing about Lisa’s dress, Chris-R and the hospital on Guerrero Street certainly deepens one’s appreciation for “The Disaster Artist,” and if you haven’t seen “The Room” before you see it, you’re going to want to watch it after.

Franco plays Wiseau, the self-styled enigma whose origin, age and income source remain a Hollywood mystery. When we first meet him he’s in acting class in San Francisco, literally climbing the walls in an over-the-top performance. He speaks a languid form of broken English that sounds like he has quicksand in his throat, and his dialect has no traceable source. All of these things, coupled with his look — part 19th century vampire, part rejected romance novel cover model and part ticket scalper — make him a loner. When Greg (Dave Franco) asks to practice acting with him after class, Tommy’s world changes.

Tommy doesn’t have a filter, he isn’t held back by societal norms, nor does he possess any sort of self-awareness. That makes him a wild card, but he’s ultimately harmless and thrilled by his new friendship. When Greg mentions wanting to visit the site of James Dean’s death, Tommy sees no reason they shouldn’t go right that second, despite the site being 300 miles away. He’s pure id, and Franco plays him as the ultimate dreamer who doesn’t realize it takes more than just dreams to make it big.

At the site of Dean’s crash, Tommy and Greg make a pact to move to Los Angeles and become famous actors. (Wiseau opts for a pinky swear, illustrating his earnestness and innocence.) On the way home, Tommy and Greg listen to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and for Tommy, the song’s chorus — “never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down” — becomes more than a refrain. It’s a bond.

They move to L.A. and stay at Tommy’s apartment — again, how he’s able to afford an apartment in Los Angeles that he doesn’t live in only deepens the mystery surrounding him — and after striking out after several months of auditions, Tommy decides to take his career into his own hands. He writes “The Room,” a comically inept drama about a doomed relationship that acts as a thin metaphor for Wiseau’s feelings about the world (Tommy is the hero, everyone else is the villain), finances it himself and casts himself as the lead. He hires a cast and crew (Seth Rogen plays a script supervisor, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Jacki Weaver and Ari Graynor play the actors in the doomed movie-within-the-movie) and he gets Greg to play Mark, Tommy’s backstabbing best friend.

The bulk of “The Disaster Artist” takes place on the set of “The Room,” as the cast and crew members openly question what it is they’ve gotten themselves into. Franco, as Wiseau, conducts himself like a know-it-all virtuoso, but he can’t get through the simplest of scenes without tripping over his dialogue. He’s all hubris mixed with total incompetence, which is how “The Room” became so uniquely bad.

Franco is a riot as Wiseau, but he’s not simply poking fun at the enigmatic character. He’s digging into the nature of ambition and shedding light on the magic of moviemaking, and the intoxicating allure of the big screen. “The Disaster Artist” is an American story, about our love affair with the movies and celebrity, and about those who will do anything to achieve their big screen dreams.

As a director (Franco has directed more than a dozen films), Franco has a keen sense of storytelling, and frames “The Disaster Artist” with appreciation for “The Room,” opening with a host of famous faces talking about the film and closing with recreations of key scenes paired side-by-side with the originals.

So what could have been a goof becomes something much deeper, and much more rich. “The Disaster Artist” is a loving, fascinating tribute to one of the most bumbling movies ever made, and is in awe of its subject the way it would be if it was taking on one of the best movies ever made. Which, you get the picture, is how Franco thinks about “The Room.”

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘The Disaster Artist’

GRADE: A

Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Running time: 105 minutes

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