James Franco’s latest is a fictional retelling of the worst movie ever

I have a confession to make: I’ve never quite understood cult cinema. I’ve always thought a film should be judged on its own merits, not celebrated for its shortcomings. So the phenomenon of “The Room,” the 2003 film beloved for its terribleness, passed me by. The opportunity to see it never presented itself, and I had no reason to seek it out.

That is, until now, with the SXSW screening of “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s fictional retelling of the making of the film. With a deep affection for the strange source material and everyone who made it, Franco and friends (including Seth Rogen, Alison Brie and Paul Scheer) pull together a comedy about two friends and their desire to make art, however haphazard and misguided their instincts are.

Based on Greg Sestero’s tell-all “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” (written with Tom Bissell), the movie hinges on the friendship of Tommy Wiseau, played by Franco, and Greg, played by his younger brother, Dave Franco. The two meet in an acting class. Greg has the looks, Tommy has the charisma. Together they make half an actor, but that doesn’t stop them from moving to Los Angeles together to try to make it big.

The hysteria surrounding “The Room” starts and ends with the strange, mysterious character of Wiseau. No one knows where he’s from, how old he is, or how he acquired millions of dollars to sink into his film. Franco does a spot-on impression. The real Tommy is captivating. When he talks, you wonder if he’s for real or just bullshitting you, but his authenticity somehow comes across. Franco exudes that same quality, the un-ironic strangeness. According to producer (and co-star) Rogen, Franco went full method and remained in character throughout the shoot, directing as Wiseau even when he wasn’t on screen.

The film never gets too critical of its characters, though there is a fairly hard to watch sequence from the day Tommy films a sex scene. Walking around set with a sack tied around his penis, Franco bosses people around and harasses his co-star. It’s an ugly moment lightened by Rogen and Scheer, who play crew members who are constantly befuddled by the entire experience. Wiseau should be taken to task more for his indiscretions, and it’s a shortcoming that the filmmakers use kid gloves in his darker moments. For this film to work, though, it has to be a comedy about friends working toward a dream.

One thing that’s so wild about “The Room” is that it eschews all the hurdles of the filmmaking process. Because of Wiseau’s seemingly unlimited funds, he gets to just go ahead and make the film that he wants. There are no traditional stakes: no pounding the pavement, no workshopping the script, no worrying if the film will make any money. Which leaves, oddly enough, room for only concerns of the artistic variety. One of the most confusing things about movies, and any artwork really, is that no one has any idea what it will be once it makes its way out into the world. No one could have anticipated the infamy Wiseau’s film would attain over the years.

Speaking of that infamy, just after midnight early Monday morning, when the screening ended, the cast Q&A concluded (embed below), and something like 90 percent of the Paramount Theater emptied out, the projectionist rolled “The Room” for a little encore. I watched “The Room” last week on DVD, though I was told this is not the preferred experience. Staying up late in a movie palace with a bunch of die-hards fit the bill quite better. I only stayed for about an hour, but, wow, do people know this movie inside and out. This is not a film that folks love to hate; it is beloved. I still don’t get cult cinema, but that’s okay.

One final note: Don’t miss the credits, which feature side-by-side comparisons of scenes from the original and recreations done for the new film. The ultimate joke of it is that, try as they might to match it, there is nothing quite like this weird film from 2003. Whatever it is, it’s unique enough to stand up on its own.

“The Disaster Artist” screened as a work-in-progress at SXSW, which means everything is subject to change, though it looked like a completed film to this writer. Warner Bros. is distributing the film with no release date announced yet.

[photo: New Line Cinema]