Into this season of the Serious Movie, when every other film seems to speak to the troubled times in which we actually live, the fact-based, yet farcical "The Disaster Artist" blows like a fresh breeze, throwing open a window through which we may escape, briefly, from ugly reality. Inspired by the making of the movie "The Room" — a labor of cinematic ineptitude that has been called "the 'Citizen Kane' of bad movies" — this sweet, affectionate (and unapologetically slight) comedy is an all-too-rare homage to harmless, hilarious incompetence, at a time when there is plenty of the more hurtful kind to go around. If it isn't quite up to the standards of "Ed Wood," Tim Burton's 1994 tribute to the auteur of such misbegotten fruits of moviemaking as "Plan 9 From Outer Space," it is nonetheless a much-needed distraction.
For those who don't know, "The Room" was the brainchild (for lack of a better word) of one Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious nobody who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the 2003 vanity project, a box-office dud that has gone on to become a staple of raucous, sold-out midnight screenings. The plot of Wiseau's movie, to the extent that there is one, concerns nothing more complex than a love triangle. Its hallmarks are wooden performance, bad dialogue, perplexingly random characters and plot points that go nowhere, and protracted, awkward sex, among other flaws.
In "The Disaster Artist," James Franco also wears multiple hats, directing, producing and starring as the real-life Tommy, whom he impersonates marvelously, beneath a long, jet-black wig and dark, wraparound glasses, rendering his alter ego's amusingly unidentifiable accent and slightly demented laugh with poker-faced glee. (Tommy routinely tells people he's from New Orleans, although Eastern Europe is probably closer to the truth.) Other characters are rendered less convincingly than their real-life counterparts, with an assortment of fake-looking dye jobs, wigs and facial hair that make the cast of "The Disaster Artist" seem, incongruously, less real than the characters in "The Room."
Like the book on which it's based, a memoir by Wiseau's "The Room" co-star Greg Sestero and writer Tom Bissell, the events of "The Disaster Artist" unfold not from Tommy's point of view, but from the perspective of Greg (Dave Franco), an aspiring 19-year-old actor who meets the 40-something Tommy in a San Francisco theater class. When the two untalented hacks commiserate about their lack of opportunities, Tommy suggests moving to Los Angeles, where they end up making their own movie, financed, reportedly, by $6 million of Tommy's money (although where that cash comes from is a mystery, like almost everything else about Wiseau). The screenplay, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, contains the vague but unmistakable suggestion that Tommy is a little bit in love with Greg, although their friendship — which frames the narrative and does much to humanize Tommy — remains platonic.
Frustratingly, this predatory aspect of their relationship is mostly ignored, in a sunny tale that is packed with laughs (albeit fewer than you'll find at an actual screening of "The Room," where people throw things at the screen and shout the dialogue's quips on cue, a la "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"). Seeing "The Room" beforehand isn't a prerequisite. Franco slavishly duplicates many of the, er, best moments from the 2003 film, and they're good fun, even for newbies. The cast includes, in small roles, such comic actors as Seth Rogan, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Sheer, Nathan Fielder and Zac Efron.
But there's a Tommy Wiseau-shaped hole at the center of this project, despite Neustadter and Weber's efforts to render Tommy as sympathetic, if not entirely comprehensible, either syntactically or psychologically. In interviews, the real Wiseau comes across as maddeningly evasive and opportunistic. If Franco's Tommy is a cipher, so is the man he's portraying.
This void spoils some of the giddy fun of "The Disaster Artist." Although the film is intended more as a love letter than an exposé, there are nagging questions that some viewers might wish to see addressed but probably never will. (Wiseau has fought to prevent the release of an unflattering documentary portrait called "A Room Full of Spoons.")
Who's exploiting whom here, in a cultural transaction that has commodified dreck? Is Wiseau using Franco, or is it the other way around? And what about the relationship between Sestero and Wiseau, who are said to still speak on a daily basis? Is Wiseau, who seems to appreciate "The Room" only as a way to make more money, really in on the same joke as the audiences who have adopted him as a kind of aging-hipster mascot?
It's not that "The Disaster Artist" doesn't answer these questions. It doesn't even seem vaguely interested in asking them.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language throughout and some sexuality and nudity. 98 minutes.