By Alan Mattli
If, for whatever reason, you have managed to elude the pop-cultural phenomenon known as The Room, here is the short version: in 2003, Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious and inexplicably rich eccentric of possibly Eastern European descent, poured millions of dollars into the making of a romantic drama film called The Room. Written, directed, and produced by, and starring Wiseau, it made less than $2,000 during its two-week run but later gained an international cult following for being hilariously awful in every respect.
Naturally, such an artefact, whose release and subsequent rise in popularity coincided with the dawn of Web 2.0, is ripe for mythologizing. People wondered how such an atrocity could ever get made. Amateur genealogists dug into the past of the inscrutable Wiseau, whose unusual accent makes it hard to believe he is a born-and-bred New Orleanian – something he was claiming for years. In 2013, The Disaster Artist, a memoir by Wiseau’s long-time friend and The Room co-star Greg Sestero, became one of the fandom’s main reference points.
The story of Wiseau’s magnum opus made its way to Hollywood proper by way of actor-director James Franco, who acquired the rights to Sestero’s book and collaborated with screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer, The Fault in Our Stars) to produce, direct, and star in the Oscar-nominated movie of the same name. The result is a curious blend of homage, riff, biopic, and docu-comedy – a supremely watchable movie that, in a way, runs into the same problems as The Room.
The Disaster Artist opens in San Francisco in 1998, where a teenaged Greg Sestero (played by Dave Franco, James’ brother), an aspiring actor, meets the enigmatic Wiseau (James Franco). In spite of Wiseau’s cringeworthy, even creepy antics – plus the fact that he claims to be 19 when he’s clearly at least twice that age – Greg feels drawn to the man, mostly due to his courage (shamelessness?) on stage. Before long, the two move to Los Angeles together to start a movie career.
If the film does one thing exceptionally well, it’s exploring the utter strangeness of Wiseau as a person. This has little to do with James Franco’s acting, which is beyond formal reproach, even if it remains emotionally superficial throughout. No, this goes far beyond the character’s looks, diction, and sense of dress: the narrative portrays him as a fundamentally erratic person, frustrating any attempt at making sense of him. He is a chummy diva, an insecure megalomaniac, a scatterbrain-control freak, a schemer with a childish sense of entitlement. I suspect this is one of the takeaways from Sestero’s book (I haven’t read it), and if that is the case, Neustadter and Weber have done an excellent job at adapting it for the screen. You truly couldn’t make up this larger-than-life character and expect him to be taken seriously as a realistic person.
Other than that, as the film works its way up to the making of The Room, it functions in much the same way as any comedy from the James Franco/Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow canon. (Both Rogen and Apatow play supporting characters here.) Like This Is 40 (2012), This Is the End (2013), or Sausage Party (2016) – all inferior movies – The Disaster Artist, a bro comedy at heart, revels in (comparatively moderate) cringe comedy, celebrity cameos, and at times exasperatingly marginal women (Alison Brie playing Greg’s girlfriend Amber in this case).
Understandably, however, the troubled shooting and bizarre premiere of The Room are the real meat of the film, and it’s where things graduate from amusing to uproariously funny – and narratively wobbly. Of course, there is little challenge in mining The Room for comedic gold: the re-enactments of now-iconic scenes are enough to elicit laughter, and those are backed up by hilarious behind-the-scenes moments – from actors questioning the very purpose of their characters to Wiseau being notoriously bad at remembering his lines. Interestingly, though, the latter scene, which was featured front and centre of the film’s main trailer, works not simply because of Franco’s – very appropriate – scenery-chewing. It’s the fact that his performance is offset by the deadpan exasperation of the rest of the crew, especially the script supervisor played by Seth Rogen, lending the scene an incredibly effective call-and-response rhythm.
But while all of this is consistently funny and entertaining, the film’s emotional trajectory rings increasingly hollow. After trying its best to capture the erratic essence of Wiseau for most of its runtime, it ultimately reverts back to trying to offer him a straightforward redemption – even if it’s tongue-in-cheek in tone. In the end, Wiseau becomes the embodiment of the stereotypical American dreamer: a white man who followed his dreams, braved hardship, created something against all odds, and, with a hearty dose of snake oil salesmanship, found personal success.
It’s in this shift where the movie’s larger project, beyond mere entertainment value, falls down. In attempting to lionise Wiseau as an inspiring “mad genius” – warts and all – The Disaster Artist requires its audience to forget a whole lot of things. For one, there is Wiseau’s possessive, even abusive behaviour, both on and off the set, which by the end is recontextualised as an amusing foible – just another element of the very eccentricity that makes him the unique character that he is. That alone should be enough to give one pause, especially at a moment in time where the movie industry as a whole is wrestling with how much licence it’s giving to toxic men in the name of “great art”.
And, perhaps more obviously, there remains the fact that The Room is still bad. Sure, it may be an extremely funny kind of bad, but that doesn’t mean that rebranding it as a comedy, as Wiseau did after its premiere, magically fixes all of its problems. It’s true that there may be a satirical aspect to that, something about America being the place where brazen mediocrity trumps quiet professionalism. If it is, however, it’s fighting a losing battle against the film’s joyful celebration of The Room as a beloved cult classic.
Yes, that celebratory tone is infectious and appealing. But it can’t mask the film’s failure to make a meaningful point about artistry and enthusiastic amateurism. Much like Wiseau set out to produce great drama in the vein of Tennessee Williams, Franco, Weber, and Neustadter aim for a funny romp with a beating heart. And much like Wiseau only succeeded in making unintended comedy gold, the Disaster Artist trio finds the laughter but falls short of the heart.
★★★ (out of five)
For more reviews (in German), visit facingthebittertruth.com.