James Franco holds court — and courts Oscar — in 'The Disaster Artist'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

After breaking through in the woefully short-lived series Freaks and GeeksJames Franco‘s first major starring role came in the 2001 made-for-TV biopic James Dean, for which the young actor won accolades for his immersive portrayal of the Method-acting master. Flash forward 16 years, and Franco is once again receiving raves for disappearing into the skin of another celebrated movie icon — who, appropriately enough, also has a thing for Dean.

Last night at the Toronto International Film Festival, Franco debuted his new film, The Disaster Artist, in which he directs himself as Tommy Wiseau — the enigmatic writer, director, producer, and star behind the contemporary cult classic The Room. Screened as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness series, the show packed the theater with The Room fans who were vocally appreciative of Franco’s performance, which faithfully replicates all of Wiseau’s distinctive tics and mannerisms on display in his vanity trip … or, if you prefer, auteurist masterwork. (Watch the just-released trailer for The Disaster Artist, which opens in theaters on Dec. 1, above.)

The crowd wasn’t alone in cheering and applauding every awkward football toss and, “Oh, hi Mark.” Wiseau himself was in the audience for The Disaster Artist‘s raucous world premiere, and took the stage afterwards alongside Franco. “I love it 99.9 percent,” the Room multi-hyphenate said of Franco’s dramatization, which is based on the tell-all making-of book penned by Wiseau’s co-star and real-life pal Greg Sestero (played by Franco’s brother, Dave Franco, in the film). That missing 0.1 percent may be due to some lingering resentment over the fact that Franco wasn’t Wiseau’s first choice to play himself. According to the Disaster Artist director, the first name that Wiseau tossed out was Johnny Depp, and Wiseau even pushed Franco to offer the role to the Pirates of the Caribbean star on the off chance he might say yes. For what it’s worth, The Disaster Artist makes clear that Wiseau’s pie in the sky, “Why not?” approach to filmmaking is the reason we were gifted with The Room in the first place.

Depp may not have worked out, but Franco’s star turn here is, in many ways, his own version of Captain Jack Sparrow — not to mention Ed Wood, the legendarily awful filmmaker that Depp embodied to perfection in Tim Burton‘s eponymous 1994 tribute. It’s not just the long hair and unique speech patterns that bring Captain Jack to mind; it’s also the way that The Disaster Artist‘s Wiseau practically leaps off the screen as a flesh-and-blood person who is completely separate from the actor playing him. Standing alongside Wiseau at the post-screening Q&A, it was clear that Franco indulged in a fair bit of mimicry in crafting the character see onscreen. But there’s also an earnestness and lack of guile that the real Wiseau, who is now several years into his post-Room career as a midnight movie gadfly and showman, doesn’t project quite as readily. And according to Dave Franco, his brother was Wiseau even when the cameras weren’t rolling, which occasionally confused some of the famous faces that visited the set to film top-secret cameos.

Watch Dave Franco talk about his brother staying in character on set:

It would be cruel to list too many of the big-name actors and comedians who are part of The Disaster Artist‘s stellar ensemble, playing people from Wiseau’s orbit or — in one hilarious case — past versions of themselves. (We’ll cap the cameo roll call at Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, and Melanie Griffith.) And it’s a testament to Franco’s committed portrayal of Wiseau that none of those co-stars — whose performances aren’t necessarily intended to be as immersive of his own — jolt us out of the movie’s reality. The Disaster Artist closes with a postscript that mentions that the real Wiseau personally funded The Room‘s initial two-week theatrical run in L.A. to ensure his epic qualified for Oscar consideration. Sadly, neither he nor the movie, received any nominations. Based on the jubilant TIFF reaction to The Disaster Artist and Franco’s performance in particular, this is a case where art probably won’t imitate life.

‘The Disaster Artist’: Watch the previously released teaser:

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