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A hundred mirrors

'The Disaster Artist' is meta-meta.

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IT'S COMPLICATED: Dave Franco and James Franco star in the Franco-directed "The Disaster Artist," a movie about making a movie.
  • IT'S COMPLICATED: Dave Franco and James Franco star in the Franco-directed "The Disaster Artist," a movie about making a movie.

Tommy Wiseau's cult-classic "The Room" is a pinnacle of "so-bad-it's-good" film genre, now screened "Rocky Horror Show"-style in theaters to riotous crowds. The experience of making the awful film was chronicled by Gregory Sestero, who appeared in "The Room" as the character Mark, in a book co-authored with Tom Bissell: "The Disaster Artist."

Enter film director James Franco, attracted to the story of Wiseau because he felt a certain kinship — they both idolized James Dean and they both went to Hollywood to become him. (In Franco's case, he did become Dean, in a way, playing him in a TV movie. More importantly, though, Franco has become a star of Dean's ilk: He's handsome and talented. In Wiseau's case ... it's more complicated.) Now, Franco has made "The Disaster Artist," a movie about the book about the movie.

Franco's film follows Sestero (played by James' brother, Dave Franco), an attractive young actor struggling in San Francisco, eager to move to LA, get rich, get famous, be a star (and be James Dean, too). When we first meet Sestero, he's in an acting class reading a scene from "Waiting for Godot" with cardboard-like rigidity. Sestero then watches Tommy Wiseau (played by James Franco) glide to the stage and, horrifically gyrating, overacting and completely releasing himself to the possibility of failure on stage. After class, Sestero asks for tips on acting and a friendship is birthed.

Wiseau proves to be much more reticent than he is on stage; he has money and seems vaguely European, but will not answer questions about his past. Bizarrely, he seems to want to be considered American, insisting he's from New Orleans to explain his strange accent.

In most movies, when a person goes to Hollywood to be the next James Dean, they begin a path to one of two disastrous ends. One we can call "the failure of the American/Hollywood dream." After their travails, we'd discuss how the fallout teaches the hero that success doesn't matter. We can call the other ending "the triumph of the American/Hollywood dream." Afterward ... well, we'd discuss how the fallout teaches the hero that success doesn't matter. In "The Disaster Artist," though, these narratives are dizzyingly merged, creating a meta, very funny and ultimately revealing story about what it means to be a star.

Wiseau and Sestero each fail at stardom, though Sestero gains a little bit of steam in life by getting an agent and finding a girlfriend, Amber (Allison Brie). The plot chugs along, and you're brought through the hellish world of auditions in rapid, pithy shots of the ridiculous Wiseau trying out for "All American" roles. The levity of the talentless failing is markedly different than the soul-crush of watching someone fall flat on his face going after his dream. It's sweeter, funnier — and this is where James Franco shines as an actor.

It's not Franco's fault necessarily (well, maybe a little), but you don't often forget it's Franco on screen. James Franco is a star, after all, and despite ourselves, we often do not want stars to act. We want them to be in a role that seems like acting (think Tom Cruise in most movies post-"Magnolia"), but in "The Disaster Artist," you're allowed to forget Franco is Franco. His celebrity is given to Tommy. The script sets up Sestero and Wiseau as the two opposites — one successful, one fledgling — but the two careers you track while you're watching it are Franco's and Wiseau's, braided together.

Sestero and Wiseau fail, predictably, and Wiseau decides to go into his own deep pockets to make "The Room." And, it gets even more meta. Seth Rogen, who produced the film and plays straight man Sandy, said Franco directed the movie in character. There were scenes, he said, where Franco was "playing Tommy directing a movie as Tommy directing a movie as Tommy. That was when we were like: 'This is fucking weird, man.' "

"The Disaster Artist" continues to etch out a discussion of what it means to be a star, indulging in the meta without missing a beat, and all that subtext is there to mine if you want it. Most of the movie, though, can be glided through as hijinks and laughs; it turns out that the making of "The Room" is almost as funny as "The Room" itself. It's sad and it's breezy — unless you want to dig. In a strange inverse relationship, "The Room" aimed for tender and veered into hilarious; "The Disaster Artist" went for laughs and took a turn for the profound.

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