I wonder how a person completely unfamiliar with The Room would approach a film about its creation. For a property already deep-steeped in an elaborate insult culture involving pantomime, in-jokes, call-and-response—The Room has become this era’s Shlocky Horror Picture Show. In James Franco’s new film based on Greg Sestero’s tell-most book, The Disaster Artist, the audience better be in on the joke, because it seeks to build upon it. Can it do this successfully, and for utter newcomers to Tommy Wiseau?
I’m familiar with Wiseau’s magnum dopus, albeit never having been a midnight movie attendee chucking plastic spoons. While I had first heard of it for years, it wasn’t until an ex-girlfriend firmly sat me down and ordered us to watch it, sniggering bon mots (bon nots?) alongside the script throughout. It was fun, and I appreciated the opportunity to finally see it. But it was more a feeling of gratitude for finally being plugged into its references than a deep well of love for each awkward, stupefyingly clumsy minute. Aside from a few, arguably famous moments, it never really planted in me as a thing to fawn over, but I certainly appreciate what it has wrought, and there is a compelling car-crash feel to sitting through each painful pause.
So it was that, while watching The Disaster Artist, I kept trying to remember back when I didn’t know it, or only knew it by reputation. And whenever I did, I usually came up lacking. The brutal irony is that a tremendous amount of Franco’s film is mistakenly awkward. The biggest jokes and gags are so heavily telegraphed and designed that the audience routinely laughed before an insult was uttered or an observation made. In a way, this makes perfect sense, and a big reason why The Room is so effective is that there is but one, confirmed, solitary individual on that set that doesn’t understand the burning building around him: Tommy himself. But in The Disaster Artist, that essential straight-man doesn’t exist. Everyone gets it: audience, actors, filmmakers, producers. We’re all waiting for the next moment that insults Wiseau, or puts his boneheaded-but-infectiously-inappropriate whimsy or petulance into greater relief.
For those who have read this far and don’t know what in the hell I’m yammering about, let’s summarize the new film. Tommy Wiseau is a middle-aged mystery-man of perplexing pick-a-Slav-any-Slav background, a hopeful actor who looks like a vampirish narc cosplaying as either Benny, Joon, or both at once. With a seemingly limitless, irresponsible supply of wealth, he attends actor’s workshops where he is a famously bad performer, but identifiably eager and often upbeat. He meets Greg Sestero at one of these classes and the two hit it off, sorta; Greg immediately, fundamentally grasps Tommy as a powerfully unique rube, but a generally nice and supportive one, a dreamer who believes the both of them should move from their San Francisco environs to LA and hit it big as capital-A Actors.
Using Tommy’s nondescript riches—apparently he owns an LA apartment which he never even stays in—the two venture forth and fail at being actors again, only more spectacularly this time, in Hollywood. Eventually, Tommy decides that the way out is through, and that he’ll just create his own film—which he will write, cast, direct, most certainly produce—and he puts a bunch of professional Hollywood support creatives on the payroll to round out what will be, at least, from a distance and in a certain temporary light, An Actual Movie.
The Room becomes anything but. At its most basic a romantic drama with an uninformed and unwelcome sense of passion, the film-within-the-film The Disaster Artist is an impressive mess of horrible acting and conspicuously terrible creative instincts. If you’ve never seen it, think of a very low-rent Skinemax movie rushed out the door without an editor. Tommy swoops over the production at every inch like the vampire bat he threatens to transform into at a moment’s notice, harassing the various staff whose roles he doesn’t understand (or care to learn of), facing off with script supervisors and DPs to no purpose or sensible end, and vomiting emotional outbursts at anyone who’ll bear to look him in the eye, a dwindling resource even halfway through production. He’s a monster, but also strangely disconnected to any comprehensible decency or drive, which thwarts most attempts to sympathize or reckon with him as a damaged hero or beset artiste. He’s an asshole, but such a poorly written asshole you can’t help but look for the joke he’s playing, or at the very damn least some shame behind any of his ludicrous actions, yet continuously come up empty. He doesn’t even move like most humans.
All that said, some of the joys of watching The Room that don’t anchor on schadenfreude involve seeing this idiot act like a star. This is America, we enjoy seeing that. Actually, way too many Americans voted for that, come to think of it. But digging under that surface to no verifiable end—Tommy’s key mysteries remain unresolved, as they do in life, but Franco doesn’t even deign to imply any possible answers—causes The Disaster Artist to occasionally dawdle and sag even worse than Wiseau’s script.
We do get a lot of funny actors and guest stars, ranging from Seth Rogen to Nathan Fielder (perfectly cast) to Charlyne Yi (always a pleasure to see), all of whom practice their best disgusted, withering glares and sarcastic asides. Their humor rarely hits big, though. We get it, Tommy’s a moron. He’s also a moron who’s paying you. I saw the film at a downtown theater in NYC that, I’m betting, was primarily filled with art school drop-ins, drop-outs, monthly box subscription designers and macrobiotic vegan scarf-makers, and they all hollered throughout the film; I think they knew the dynamic of getting overpaid while mocking the reason for being there a little too well.
Maybe I’m being unkind, but it’s only because I’m driven to some kind of consideration or sympathy at the freak rattling the bars of his cage. The Room is Wiseau’s headlined circus, which also makes it feel safe to ridicule, but an attempt to approach the bizarre artist (often dubbed an “outsider artist,” I think the pronoun is ill-fitted for someone so desperate to be inside) and then mock his actual life and character, strange and petty as they both might be, feels at least slightly inappropriate. I think Franco knows this, too, and he attempts certain moments of pathos which are often as clumsy as Wiseau’s acting; of these, the frequent barbs where Tommy is told how “villainous” he seems and his resultant suffering at this observation are the most successful. But we’re usually just meant to revel in the crew’s scorn, and I just didn’t feel absolutely confident doing that every time. At its least interesting moments, Wiseau becomes a less sympathetic Michael Scott, or a more sympathetic David Brent.
As Tommy, James Franco is an adept mimic most of the time, and he inhabits his bull-in-a-china-shop mannerisms with gusto. I laughed the hardest when, prior to the “Oh hi, Mark!” scene, he grumpily stuffs everything on a table into his cargo pants pockets as some kind of quizzically contrary response to a wardrobe person’s advice. Strangely, the poster for Franco’s film might be the one time in the movie he doesn’t look eerily like the man himself. Overall, the transformation is reliable, as it would have to be for any of this to work.
In the end, The Disaster Artist confidently preens its feathers as an insider-film, except its preferred audience already knows the better jokes. Which brings me to my absolute favorite part of the film, by a country mile: the pre-credits scene. Franco & co. actually went and painstakingly recreated shot-for-shot scenes from The Room, which somehow rendered me to tears of laughter—me, a casual fan of The Room at best! Maybe it’s because it amplifies the love the filmmakers had for Wiseau’s trashterpiece, in how carefully they sought to emulate each detail. This moment fulfills the The Disaster Artist’s most elusive message: how unexpectedly and thoroughly the thing you mock risks becoming exactly what you admire.
The Disaster Artist will have a limited release in US theaters on December 1st, with a nationwide release on December 8th. Trailer below:
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Leonardo Faierman is the senior film editor at Black Girl Nerds. Born in Buenos Aires, raised in Queens, Bar Mitzvah'd at Young Israel, buried under student loans. He writes video game, music, film, and movie reviews, as well as poetry, comic books, bad dreams and good copy. He's 1/5th of the comics podcast #BlackComicsChat and 1/2 of horror film podcast The Scream Squad.