If Tommy Wiseau was put on this planet to make The Room, James Franco was born to make The Disaster Artist.
When I get up on stage in front of people all I can think about is, “What if they laugh at me.” You man, you’re fearless. I want to feel that too.
My first experience with The Room was this summer, alone, on my laptop. As many have since told me, that is perhaps the worst possible way to watch The Room. But while I certainly missed out on the communal, Rocky Horror-esque, throw-spoons-at-the-screen party atmosphere that accompanies the film’s frequently sold-out screenings around the country, I was nevertheless in awe of the magnitude of The Room’s badness. That level of unironic ineptitude, impossible to manufacture, can only be the product of a perfect storm of pure, delusional incompetence. And I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the story of The Room’s creation was more fascinating than the film itself.
The Disaster Artist, based on the book of the same name co-written by Greg Sestero, the second lead of The Room and somehow the best friend of the film’s enigmatic writer/producer/director/star, Tommy Wiseau, tells that story. Since The Room’s auspicious premiere in Los Angeles fourteen years ago, word of mouth carried its name into the upper echelons of Hollywood – a film so entertainingly awful people like Seth Rogen, Kevin Smith, and Patton Oswalt were soon organizing their own screenings, furthering its legend. Somehow, this cinematic equivalent of a bag of dog poop set aflame has become the cult hit of the century, surpassing even the hallowed Plan 9 From Outer Space in the conversation of “Worst Film Ever Made.”
The good news for you, aficionado of fine cinema, is that you don’t have to have subjected yourself to The Room to appreciate The Disaster Artist, because its through-line isn’t simply a making-of, but a character study – a story of fateful friendship between a young actor and a mysterious auteur, and of the blurry line between fearlessness and delusion. It’s also, probably, the pinnacle of James Franco’s career, the perfect vehicle for his own determined oddness. He occupies a similar role to Wiseau here as director and star, but his performance – and recreation of “iconic” scenes from the film in question — is more than studied mimicry. As a companion piece to The Room, it’s essential. On its own, it’s still a fascinating portrait of a dream-chaser, who succeeds against all the odds to achieve…something. Just what that is, exactly, is still being debated, which is in itself a victory, I suppose.
The protagonist of The Disaster Artist isn’t Wiseau, but Sestero (Dave Franco, too short, but who cares). As a struggling young actor in San Francisco, too nervous to perform even in front of his own class, he finds himself drawn to the pale, lank-haired Wiseau, whose rendition of the famous monologue from A Streetcar Named Desire (he idolizes both Brando and Tennessee Williams, you see) is truly bad, but shows a mindless courage that Sestero knows he lacks. Wiseau refuses to talk about his past; he claims to be from New Orleans, but his speech suggests somewhere in the Eastern Bloc, and his mannerisms suggest an alien approximating human behavior based solely on reruns of Days of Our Lives. When asked how old he is, he says “Same age as you, Greg.” He also seems to be unfathomably wealthy, but he doesn’t want to talk about that, either. (To this day, no one knows how he got his money.) But a weird kinship is formed out of their shared dream to become “big Hollywood actor,” which soon brings them to Los Angeles, and Wiseau’s unused second apartment.
Those who come to The Disaster Artist solely for stories of The Room will have to wait a while, because like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the film about another writer/director who achieves improbable infamy, Wiseau and Sestero’s early struggles make for thematically rich mining. As Greg quickly secures an agent (played in a terrifying cameo by Sharon Stone) and a girlfriend (Alison Brie, Dave Franco’s real-life wife), Tommy continues to flounder. His acting teacher (Bob Odenkirk!) calls him “a malevolent presence;” casting directors grit their teeth and wait for him to leave; his attempt to impress a producer at dinner ends in embarrassment, and he begins – as many do – to wonder if he doesn’t really have it. Until one afternoon, when Greg utters the magic words – “Maybe we should make our own movie” – and the seeds for The Room are planted and watered. James Franco, who (according to reports) directed Disaster in character, plays these moments beautifully; just when I would begin to get fatigued by Tommy, Franco would find a new shade to play with.
From here, The Disaster Artist becomes a non-stop parade of in-jokes (that, again, it’s okay if you don’t get) and celebrity cameos: the cast of The Room includes Nathan Fielder, Ari Graynor (as the two-timing “Lisa”), Josh Hutcherson (exquisite), Jacki Weaver, and a scene-stealing Zac Efron as the roid-raging gangster “Chris R.” The film’s crew includes Seth Rogan, Paul Scheer, Hannibal Buress, and Jason Mantzoukas; Disaster even begins with talking heads from Kristen Bell, Adam Scott, and others too good to spoil espousing The Room’s trashy greatness. It’s obvious that many, many people were eager to work with Franco to honor this trainwreck, and that shows in its loving attention to detail, as well as the sympathy the film gives to both the mercurial Wiseau, who insults his collaborators and frequently shows up late to work at his own dream project, and to those simply hanging on for dear life as the production runs weeks behind schedule and over-budget.
The film finds consistent humor not just in audience recognition, but in expertly capturing the mundane absurdity of the day-to-day work on a project this bizarre. Wiseau elects to shoot on film and video simultaneously; he turns down perfectly adequate locations for pre-built sets; when it’s Tommy’s turn to go in front of the camera, he doesn’t even know his own lines (the “Hi, Mark” sequence is the comedic highlight). Unlike some indie directors who can drag their films to completion through sheer force of will, Tommy is a decidedly uninspiring, even abusive figure; he can only write checks. Eventually everyone’s patience runs out, and even Greg – who has to turn down a TV gig at Tommy’s demand – prays that The Room never sees the light of day.
I laughed all the way through The Disaster Artist. But it’s hard to say what its lesson is, and that’s perhaps where it falls just short of Ed Wood, the film to which it’s most comparable. Is it really a scrappy underdog story? Not exactly; Wiseau’s (perhaps ill-gotten) wealth makes it more about his rampaging id than misplaced artistic integrity, and everyone who loves The Room is perpetually nervous about some dark secret coming to light that will ruin the fun. And this makes it hard for Disaster to really get under Wiseau’s skin to figure out what makes him tick – if his film is, in some way, autobiographical, we can only guess at its origins, as Tommy’s feelings of disrespect and betrayal are already fed enough throughout The Room’s production. The best we can say is that Wiseau is an exceedingly strange man who spent millions on a debut feature film so inartful it somehow became art.
Wiseau famously rented a billboard for months leading up to The Room’s premiere (which continued to stand for years afterward, depicting him glowering down inscrutably at the traffic on Highland Avenue), piquing enough interest to generate a sizable audience for its first screening. As The Disaster Artist portrays it, it was a roaring success – for the opposite reason than Wiseau intended. Nevertheless, he took it in stride, and began to say that The Room was always intended to be a comedy, thanking the audience for appreciating his true genius. This obviously false metatextual reading has also become part of Room lore, yet another inside joke fans tell each other, the snake eating its own tail, leaving Sestero and his castmates with no choice but to fully embrace the insanity. Wiseau has ensnared them for life, and Franco’s willingness to graft himself into this world is its own kind of madness. It may not stand the test of time, but hey, no one thought The Room would, either.