photo - James Franco in "The Disaster Artist." MUST CREDIT: Justina Mintz, A24
James Franco in "The Disaster Artist." MUST CREDIT: Justina Mintz, A24  

Into this season of serious films speaking to the troubled times in which we live, the fact-based yet farcical "The Disaster Artist" blows like a fresh breeze, throwing open a window through which we may escape from ugly reality.

Inspired by the making of "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.

"The Room" was the brainchild (for lack of a better word) of Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious nobody who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the 2003 vanity project, a box office dud that has become a staple of raucous, sold-out midnight screenings. The plot, to the extent there is one, is a love triangle. The hallmarks are wooden performance, bad dialogue, perplexingly random characters, plot points that go nowhere and protracted, awkward sex.

In "The Disaster Artist," James Franco also wears multiple hats, directing, producing and starring as the real-life Tommy, whom he impersonates marvelously in a long, jet-black wig and dark, wraparound glasses, rendering his alter ego's amusingly unidentifiable accent and slightly demented laugh with pokerfaced glee. Other characters are rendered less convincingly, with fakey dye jobs, wigs and facial hair that make the cast of "The Disaster Artist" seem even less real than 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 hacks commiserate about their lack of opportunities, Tommy suggests moving to Los Angeles, where they end up making their own movie, using $6 million of Tommy's money.

A Wiseau-shaped hole is at the center of this project, despite 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 "Disaster." Although the film is intended more as a love letter than an expose, nagging questions are left unaddressed. It's not that "The Disaster Artist" doesn't answer these questions. It doesn't even seem vaguely interested in asking them.

Michael O'Sullivan The Washington Post

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Starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor; directed by James Franco; 98 minutes; R for coarse language throughout and some sexuality and nudity.

Grade: B-