I’ve never really been one to watch movies that are “so bad they’re good.” I’ll watch the occasional MST3K episode but in general I’m of the belief that it’s almost disrespectful to waste your time on stuff you know is crap when there are so many actual good movies that go unseen. As such I was a bit late to the party when it came to the most infamous bad movie of the 21st century: The Room. For the uninitiated, The Room is a film that was made in 2003 by an incredibly weird guy named Tommy Wiseau apparently with his own money which has become infamous for how hilariously bizarre and misguided it is. It regularly plays to packed midnight screenings where fans engage in Rocky Horror Picture Show style audience participation involving plastic spoons and footballs. I didn’t see the movie through one of those screenings (watching movies at midnight is not for me) but I did rent it on DVD and it totally lives up to the “hype,” in fact it may well have been worse than I expected. Most infamously bad movies are genre films that feel like they maybe could have been passable if given a little more time and money and maybe a little tinkering, not this one. The Room was clearly intended to be this literate indie movie where Wiseau puts his soul onto the screen, but Wiseau seems so oblivious to the basic logic with which most people see the world that nothing about it works at all. Part of The Room’s appeal comes simply from the way it forces you to ask “What were they thinking? How the hell did something like this come into existence, what were they thinking?” Fortunately James Franco has come along to answer that question with his new film The Disaster Artist, a comedy which seeks to reenact the events which led to the creation of this incredible oddity.
The film begins in 1998 when an aspiring young actor named Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) attends an acting class in San Francisco where he tanks a line reading in part because he lacked a certain level of confidence. That did not seem to be a problem for someone else in the class, a mysterious character with what appears to be a thick European accent named Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) who proceeds to deliver a wildly over the top recitation of the “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Realizing that, if nothing else, Wiseau could teach him a thing or two about confidence Sestero decides to meet up with Wiseau and prep a scene. The two eventually form an odd friendship despite Wiseau’s general Wiseau-ness and the two decide to move to L.A., where Wiseau apparently has an apartment, to pursue their dreams of professional acting. Two years later they’re both chasing their dreams, not terribly successfully, and Wiseau gets an idea to stop waiting for Hollywood to give them his break and write and finance his own film which he’ll cast himself and Sestero in.
It is perhaps fitting that it would be James Franco who to bring Tommy Wiseau’s story to the screen given that Franco’s own directorial career actually parallels Wiseau’s in some curious ways. Franco’s directorial career started off real shaky with him making these very low budget movies that few people saw and which were widely labeled “vanity projects.” At James Franco Comedy Central Roast his friend Jonah Hill alleged that Franco’s philosophy was less “one for them, one for me” and more “one for them, five for nobody.” Mind you these movies (which I admittedly haven’t seen and only know by reputation) weren’t necessarily said to be poorly made so much as they were said to be movie’s whose ambitions greatly exceeded Franco’s capabilities, especially in the case of his attempts to make adaptations of lofty works of literature by the likes of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. Given this and his occasional eccentric behavior maybe one can imagine Franco having a certain sympathy for this guy who was also writing, directing, financing, and starring in his own movie, trying to bring a strange vision to the screen even though no one seems to have much confidence in him and almost seems to be humoring him rather than working with him.
Unlike some of James Franco’s more experimental work The Disaster Artist is at its heart a fairly mainstream comedy that isn’t too far removed from some of the movies Franco has made with Seth Rogen (who has a small role here as well). The humor of course comes from how freaking weird Tommy Wiseau is and the various ways people react to him. This ultimately comes down to James Franco’s rather impressive ability to replicate Wiseau’s broken English and his strange ticks both in his recreation of scenes from The Room and in his off camera interactions. Franco doesn’t look just like Wiseau, he seems to be a bit younger than Wiseau and less muscular and he seems to have opted not to use a lot of makeup to correct this, but you aren’t necessarily thinking this when not looking at them side to side and the work he does imitating the voice more than makes up for this.
Also like those Appatow/Seth Rogen movies there’s actually something of a “bromance” at the core of this thing. When I first saw The Room I interpreted it as being a two hour kiss-off to some ex-girlfriend that Wiseau wanted to depict as a duplicitous bitch who was tearing apart the life of a wonderful blameless man for no reason. In retrospect I think I might have been giving that movie a little too much credit in assuming it was saying anything as coherent as that. The Disaster Artist doesn’t do much of anything to back up the notion that Lisa is based on any real woman. Instead the movie posits that the movie actually ties into Wiseau’s friendship with Greg Sestero. The friendship between Wiseau and Sestero is an odd one; one gets the impression that Wiseau’s status as a weirdo makes him lonely and particularly grateful that Sestero and Sestero seems in many ways grateful that Wiseau believes in his dream of becoming an actor and supports this monetarily and otherwise. The movie even hints that Wiseau may have had a homosexual attraction to Sestero and feels threatened when Sestero gets a girlfriend and starts drifting away from him. Whether his interest in Sestero was sexual or not The Disaster Artist seems to posit that Wiseau made The Room and wrote a bit of a “bros before hoes” vibe into it in order to reform his bond with Sestero.
The obvious reference point for The Disaster Artist is almost certainly Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood, which was also a semi-loving look at an enthusiastic but wildly misguided maker of infamously terrible movies. That movie was affectionate about its subject and ultimately celebrated him as a misfit who meant well and did the best he could. I think Franco sort of feels the same way about Wiseau, but I sense something more akin to fascination than affection from the movie. It also doesn’t sugarcoat some of Wiseau’s less pleasant characteristics including some of the more dangerous corners he cut in making The Room like refusing to pay for air conditioning during the shoot and his incredibly rude treatment of an actress while shooting a sex scene, which leads to a rather heated debate between him and Sestero about the on set behavior of other better directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock. One could also see how a lot of what Wiseau does here would be a lot less funny if not for the fact that Wiseau was (for mysterious reasons) extremely wealthy. He isn’t dropping his entire life savings into this movie and he isn’t wasting other people’s money in making it and because of that the stakes here are kind of low. One can imagine a version of this story where someone like Wiseau takes the advice of La La Land and follows their dreams, puts everything on the line, and ends up making something like The Room but without the “Springtime for Hitler” reaction. That story would be a tragedy, but Wiseau could take the hit and ended up with something of a happy ending, so his story is a comedy and a funny one at that.