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James Franco’s ‘The Disaster Artist’: A great movie about the greatest bad movie? The SXSW reaction

"The Disaster Artist" brain trust: actor/producer Seth Rogen, actor/director James Franco and actor Dave Franco at South by Southwest. (Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for SXSW)

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” promises to make up for years of devastating reviews and late-night jeers aimed at Tommy Wiseau and his cult flick, “The Room.” The infamous 2003 self-made, self-promoted indie flop turned midnight movie sensation is filled with bad acting, worse continuity and an incomprehensibly soapy plot about love and betrayal. A decade and a half after its disastrous Los Angeles premiere, “The Disaster Artist” is redemption for the best-worst movie of all time.

“I am Tommy Wiseau,” Franco, the film’s director and star, confessed Sunday night at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where standing ovations met his surreal and surprisingly affecting ode to “The Room” and the enigmatic filmmaker who wrote, directed, financed and starred in what bad-movie aficionados consider one of cinema’s most historically inept creations.

“I relate to him so much in ways that I don’t want to admit,” Franco added, grinning ear to ear onstage next to Seth Rogen, who produces and acts in the film, and his brother Dave Franco, who costars. In the audience, the real Wiseau arrived quietly and sat next to Greg Sestero, his friend and “The Room” costar whose behind-the-scenes memoir was the basis of the Franco film, watching “The Disaster Artist” for the first time.

Fans of “The Room” will find plenty to cheer for in “The Disaster Artist,” which slides references to now-celebrated lines and scenes into a narrative about Wiseau and the film he thought would be his ticket to Hollywood.

So dedicated was Franco to getting it right, revealed Dave, who plays Sestero, that he stayed in character for the entire “Disaster Artist” shoot — even while directing.

“I studied the role of Tommy in the way I played James Dean,” Franco said, “just obsessively driving around in my car, listening to [his] voice all the time.”

The fact that he spends an extended amount of screen time depicting the origin of “The Room’s” “Oh, hi Mark” moment, water bottle and all, is one indicator of how far Franco’s attempting to plumb the Wiseau mythos.

But “The Disaster Artist” is really Franco’s “Ed Wood,” a persuasively human chronicle of how the DIY cinematic catastrophe was borne out of the friendship between Wiseau and fellow frustrated actor Sestero, who meet in a San Francisco acting class and move to Los Angeles together with the shared dream of getting discovered.

If anyone can feel the pain of a movie not turning out quite as one had hoped, it’s a bunch of Hollywood actors, Rogen explained in their approach to the film.

“What we talked about more than anything else while we were putting the movie together was, ‘Why do we love this movie?’” he said. “Not, ‘Why do we make fun of this movie?’ Or, ‘Why do we laugh at this movie?’ But, ‘What is great about that movie?’ And at the end of the day, it was the earnestness of a guy who put himself out there.”

And as evidenced by an epilogue of eerily accurate shot-for-shot reenactments Franco and his cast staged for the film, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, they’ve watched “The Room” a lot.

“I’ve seen it more times than I’ve seen ‘Network,’” laughed Rogen, who plays Sandy Schklair, the film’s script supervisor. Franco brought the project to him while the pair were filming their North Korea-skewering comedy “The Interview.” “This is the good thing to come out of ‘The Interview,’” Rogen quipped.

The Warner Bros. film, which screened as a “work in progress” premiere at the Austin film festival, is more than mere mimicry, although Franco turns in an arguably career-best performance as the mercurial Wiseau while sporting astoundingly convincing prosthetics, stringy black tresses and an uncannily spot-on accent.

As agents, casting directors and producers in the city of stars keep telling these fools to stop dreaming (including Judd Apatow, who decimates Tommy’s hope in one memorable scene), they persevere. Wiseau decides to write his own movie with parts for himself and Sestero — and, of course, he intends to direct it himself.

A huge cast of comedy talent rounds out the ensemble, including Ari Graynor, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, June Diane Raphael, Nathan Fielder and Jacki Weaver as cast members of Wiseau’s film; Alison Brie as Greg’s girlfriend; plus Paul Scheer, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone and Bryan Cranston, playing Bryan Cranston.

As the hysterically unwieldy production swells and Wiseau’s own crew turns on him, Franco as Wiseau delivers a fascinating study in tyrannical artistry while Franco the director builds genuine empathy for his subject.

The standing ovation in the sold-out Paramount Theatre began as soon as the credits started rolling, and then more surreal developments unfolded.

One man stood patiently in line to ask a question in the post-screening question-and-answer session, then offhandedly revealed that he was the original actor who played Chris-R in the film. He was promptly invited onstage, along with Wiseau and Sestero. “Zac Efron played you!” roared Rogen.

Another ovation came several minutes later for Wiseau himself, who stood up in the aisles to take selfies with eager fans on his way to the stage. Standing next to Sestero, the “Room” multi-hyphenate gave no indication of what he really thought of Franco’s film or his uncanny performance.

Watching it with Wiseau in the building also added a bizarre meta-commentary to Franco’s most powerful scenes, including one in which his Wiseau confronts his haters for mocking him. In another, he is devastated to discover that people are laughing at him on-screen at his own lavish, self-financed Hollywood premiere.

The film drew a steady stream of cackles from the riotous late-night SXSW audience, who burst out laughing sometimes just at the sight of Franco in character.