by Michael Henley
No one ever sets out to make a bad movie. When they end up with one, it can usually be traced back to a complex alchemy of egos, setbacks and misapplied passions. One of the many fascinations of the movie business is the fact that creativity is a tricky ember: easily stoked, but to what end? When you hear a story about David Fincher making his leads do 100 takes for the opening scene of The Social Network, you can see the work was worth it. But sometimes your lead actor does 50 takes of a simple line. By any mathematics, you should be halfway towards greatness. But art, let this be clear, is not math.
James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is a cautionary comedy about a movie production where everything goes wrong, starting with the decision to make the movie in the first place. It’s based on the true story of the making of The Room*, a 2003 drama so laughably inept in every aspect that it has achieved a sort of notoriety nirvana as the ultimate ironic cult movie. It’s this generation’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, and in a way every midnight Room screening recalls that Seinfeld episode where Jerry contemplates going to Plan 9 by himself: “What am I going to do? Make sarcastic remarks to strangers?” The Room fans pretty much do just that, in packed screenings, every weekend, somewhere in the world.
And now just like Plan 9 begat a feature-length appreciation of its maker in Tim Burton’s wonderful Ed Wood, so too has The Room spawned The Disaster Artist, a celebration of not just a crap film’s making, but of the uncanny determination of its maker. That man is a high-caliber weirdo named Tommy Wiseau, played here by Franco himself.
The Wiseau public persona is one that defies caricature. He has seemingly unlimited wealth and an inimitable sense of anti-style. He dresses like a cargo-pant-clad vampire. His looks are…unconventional…but he obviously considers himself a prize. His speech is a grab bag of slurred, vaguely-Eastern European consonant-destroying sounds but he claims he’s from Louisiana; when asked on this point he always clarifies “yeu knaw, Newwww Or-lee-uhns, the bye-yew,” as if the geographic concept of New Orleans is what trips people up.
Tommy has confidence. Boy, does he. We first see him through the eyes of Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), as Tommy screams through a San Francisco reading of Streetcar Named Desire (“Stelllllllllaaaaaa!”) with all the restraint of a Batman villain, to an audience of stunned acting students. Bewitched, Greg is convinced to hitch his futures to Johnny, and the two begin a bewildering partnership. Soon he’s accepting Tommy’s help to move to Los Angeles, and Greg’s mother (Megan Mullaly), concerned about this bizarre man taking such a naked interest in her son, asks Tommy how old he is. Same as Greg, he mumurs, which would make him 19. How do I put this? No.
It’s in Los Angeles where inspiration hits. After Tommy strikes out in numerous casting calls and Dave’s burgeoning career loses momentum (perhaps, it’s speculated, due to his close orbit to Tommy), the two decide to band together to make Tommy’s passion project, an opus called The Room, which will be financed by Tommy himself to the tune of six million dollars.
When you see The Room, you might be baffled where the money went, but The Disaster Artist explains this: sets that unnecessarily duplicate existing locations, numerous cycles of cast and crew as personnel leave the picture, and even the baffling decision to (a) shoot in both 35mm and high definition video and (b) buy this equipment rather than rent it, which is the industry standard. When Tommy’s script supervisor, Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen) questions these choices, Tommy shows his touching naiveté (“Because it’s real Hollywood movie!”), and then Sandy relents with a shrug. It would hardly be the first time a Hollywood director had an opaque and costly style.
Shooting The Room ends up putting that principle to the test. Tommy has no idea how to direct a movie, and he struggles forward with bafflingly resourced bravado. His moviemaking strategies are so confusing it raises the question of whether or not he’s even seen a motion picture. His line readings make him sound like Dracula, and that’s when he can remember his lines (which he wrote) at all. His reaction shots make his heroic lead character seem sociopathic. Take numbers or simple setups go high into the double-digits. Shoot days stretch into infinity. Tommy shows up hours late for no reason. The blocking makes no sense. Character motivations don’t add up. Revelations in the script are made and then dropped. Money is spent unwisely. During the shooting of one deeply uncomfortable sex scene with the film’s lead actress (Ari Graynor), Tommy stalks around set naked, terrorizes his cast members and almost comes to blows with his entire crew.
“Was Hitchcock nice to his actors? Was Kubrick?” Tommy asks pointedly when Greg starts calling him on his shit. It’s a good point, one that touches a raw nerve due to the past few months of Hollywood news. What’s the trade-off between misbehavior and genius? Does one excuse the other? If so, by how much of each?
All of this is true. You can read about it in the real Greg Sestero’s book (also called The Disaster Artist, co-written by Mark Bissell), one of the most delicious Hollywood tell-all books of the past several decades. It chronicles Tommy and Greg’s friendship, their struggles and frustrations, and how making The Room eventually tested their relationship to the breaking point. The Room eventually premieres and is transmuted into a sarcastic pop hit, raising all the more questions of what success means in this day and age, and whether validation still counts when it comes with such a thick coat of irony. Does it matter?
The movie is consistently funny, and the script (by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber) has a knack for perfect Tommy-isms (when moving Dave into his place, he smirks with all sincerity: “Be my guest. This is like Beauty and the Beast. I’m Beauty. Hahahaha.”) The movie’s second half, all about the torturous shoot of The Room, moves at a breakneck pace that approaches delirium (sample title: “Shooting Day 54 of 40.”). But what sells the entire production is not is humor, but it heart: the undercurrent of sweetness between Greg and Tommy and the movie’s sense of admiration for the myth and the man: without dismissing his nasty side, and while sometimes willing to gently rib the guy, the film takes a stand in admiring the willpower, his bruised nobility and his just plain passion of the young man (hahahah). As much as The Disaster Artist shares a kinship with Burton’s Ed Wood, Franco’s movie has to thread a tougher needle, by asking us to sympathize with someone who is just as often committed as he is monstrous, and find something to love.
Mr. Franco’s performance is as good as it can be. He’s quite strong in the role, and committed to the excesses of Tommy’s overflowing personality. It’s just that Tommy Wiseau may defy embodiment by way of a Hollywood actor—Franco’s role seems to stop at extremely dedicated imitation. More impressive is the work of his brother, who finds a wounded heart at the center of the material in Greg, who has to make tougher and tougher choices and justify them to his girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie). Rogen, as the put-upon script supervisor, is wonderful, downplaying to a perfect degree and savoring his role as a consistent straight man to the insanity around him—he captures the bemused flavor of a competent professional made powerless by a ship of fools. There are other cute cameos by comedians and Hollywood elite (some of which are too good to spoil here), proving once and for all that the cult and myth of The Room is so affluent and writ large that it could serve as an L.A. suburb in and of itself.
If there’s a lesson to be extracted from The Disaster Artist, it’s the admission that Los Angeles is a strange place that excuses a lot (a lesson that feels oddly timely right now), and that the boundaries between vision, madness and sheer con artistry are awfully thin (it’s only late in the process that everyone fully realizes The Room is going to be a bad movie). What makes the story of Tommy Wiseau so remarkable, in the end, is that he’s only slightly more odd than the tinseltown heroes whose names we know by heart. And ultimately, he won. Sort of. Hooray for Hollywood.
Consumer’s note: The Room is not meant to be confused with Room (2015), the wonderful drama that netted Brie Larson an Oscar. It is naaht.