The SXSW Film Festival continues to grow in scope, as a launching pad for broad studio comedies and blockbusters — see “Bridesmaids,” “Neighbors,” and “Trainwreck” — but it’s never unveiled a major Oscar contender before. That might have changed on Sunday night, with the “work-in-progress” premiere of James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist.”
On paper, the movie should be a niche story — a comedy about the making of what’s widely regarded as the worst movie of all time, the 2003 cult indie “The Room,” starring an outsider named Tommy Wiseau, who financed the project and directed it, too. But to say the Austin crowd was ecstatic at the premiere is an understatement. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such thunderous rolls of laughter at the Paramount Theatre, thanks to a tour-de-force (and career-best) performance by Franco, who also (how method!) directed the upcoming Warner Bros. release.
Franco plays Wiseau like Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon,” meets Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.” At a post-screening Q&A, Seth Rogen — who portrays “The Room” script supervisor Sandy Schklair — revealed that Franco stayed in character during the entire shoot, even meeting his grandmother as Wiseau. “There were scenes where you,” Rogen said, pointing to Franco, “were playing Tommy, directing a movie as Tommy, directing a movie as Tommy. We’ve done a lot of weird s— in our day. But that was one where I was like, ‘This is f—ing weird.’”
The movie is adapted from a 2013 non-fiction book, written by “The Room” co-star Greg Sestero (played by Dave Franco). James pitched the idea to Rogen while they were shooting another movie together. “This is the good thing to come out of ‘The Interview,’” Rogen said, of the 2014 comedy that led to a hack of internal emails at Sony Pictures. Wiseau wanted Johnny Depp to play him, but Franco convinced him that he was a suitable second choice. “I’ve seen some of your work,” the real-life Wiseau told Franco. “You do good things and bad things.”
Franco said he approached playing Wiseau as if he were a legendary screen icon. “It’s funny,” Franco said. “Tommy is a huge fan of James Dean. In a weird way, I studied the role of Tommy in the way I played James Dean — just obsessively driving around in my car, listening to [his] voice all the time.”
Throughout the screening, Wiseau, who was in attendance, sat solemnly next to Sestero, watching the picture for the first time, as the theater erupted around him. After the credits rolled, when approached by a Variety reporter, Wiseau wouldn’t offer a thumbs up or thumbs down. “I have to think about it,” he replied.
The Academy typically doesn’t honor comedies, but there are elements in “The Disaster Artist” that may be hard to resist. First off, it’s a valentine to Hollywood, which is usually a guarantee for a boatload of nominations. Then there’s the film’s star-studded ensemble, some of whom only make a brief cameo — including Sharon Stone (as an agent), Bryan Cranston (playing himself from his “Malcolm in the Middle” days), Melanie Griffith, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, and Judd Apatow.
Warner Bros. doesn’t have a release date set yet, but whenever “The Disaster Artist” hits theaters, it’s sure to be a formidable hit, especially once word-of-mouth gets out. While it helps to know “The Room,” the movie was constructed so that even those unfamiliar with it could follow along. At the post-screening Q&A, the audience started chanting Wiseau’s name, as he reluctantly took the stage with the film’s cast for a photograph. “I hope he liked it,” Rogen said. If he didn’t, he’d be the only one.
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