There is no shortage of bad films released each year, but there is something special about 2003’s The Room, the strange artifact from the mind of the mysterious Tommy Wiseau that is now revered as “the worst movie of all time.” What makes The Room resonate with audiences and still play to packed houses is not just that it is traditionally “bad” in every sense (writing, directing, editing, common sense), but that it is truly something other, the closest thing to an alien artifact that we have.
The Room aims to be a classic piece of highly emotional American drama in the vein of Tennessee Williams, but was conceived by someone with almost no understanding of how human relationships work. Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film as Johnny, who falls into the depths of despair when he realizes his beloved girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle) is having an affair with his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero).
But as anyone who’s even seen The Room can attest to, the plot is basically inconsequential — what makes the film so memorable is the utterly bizarre performance by Wiseau, whose all-American Johnny looks and sounds like a being who should be haunting a medieval castle, with his long greasy hair and his vaguely Eastern European accent. The melodrama in the film is turned up to 11, characters come and go for no apparent reason, the film drastically shifts tone a number of times (often in the same scene), there are incredibly awkward and physically improbable sex scenes, and for some reason, images of spoons are deemed particularly frame-worthy.
The Disaster Artist is based on Greg Sestero’s 2013 memoir of the same name, which chronicled the hijinx and mysteries behind Tommy Wiseau and the production of The Room. Where was Tommy actually from? How did he have the $6 million dollars (!) to finance the film on his own? And perhaps most importantly, why did he even want to make it in the first place?
Sestero’s memoir wasn’t able to address all of the Wiseau mysteries, but it did prove to be a fascinating story of drive and ambition, while offering up a bird’s-eye view of the turbulent making of the film. At the heart of the book was the uneasy friendship and working relationship between Wiseau and Sestero, with Wiseau portrayed as a manipulative egomaniac desperate to get his “vision” out into the world, where he was sure it would be instantly recognized as a work of genius.
James Franco’s version of The Disaster Artist, which like Wiseau, he directed, produced and stars in, eschews some of the creepiness of the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero for a feel-good story of an outsider breaking into Hollywood in his own way. Played almost as a buddy film, Franco’s brother Dave plays Sestero, and the two of them are more or less partners on the bizarre voyage of bringing The Room to fruition.
The real saving grace of the film (and likely the reason it exists at all) is James Franco’s uncanny impression of Wiseau, which he nails perfectly from his stilted accent and phrasing right down to his one half-shut eye. Franco rides a fine line between impersonating Wiseau and parodying him, but it’s clear that The Disaster Artist sees this as an inspirational story of two outsiders turning their rejection from mainstream Hollywood into their own unique and bizarre success story.
The first half of the film is by far the funniest and most interesting, as we meet the vampire-like Wiseau during his failed attempt at making a name for himself in the San Fransisco acting world. His acting teacher and fellow students think he’s a joke, but the young Sestero is intrigued by his fearlessness and energy. When Wiseau casually mentions that he has an apartment in L.A. that he’s not using, the pair of them decide to spontaneously move to L.A. to pursue their acting careers.
Faced with constant rejection (including a brutal restaurant scene with Judd Apatow), Wiseau decides to create his own movie, which he will fund himself. He spares no expense in the endeavor — all the gear is bought instead of rented (an unheard of practice), multiple crews are hired to film on different formats, and a cast and crew are roped in because, well, Wiseau’s cheques actually go through.
Once the actual filming of The Room kicks in, The Disaster Artist basically becomes a long inside-joke, as we watch the two Francos and one of the best comedy ensembles in years (including Paul Scheer, Seth Rogen, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas and many others) re-create classic scenes from The Room. Wiseau’s behind-the-scenes mania does hint at some of the darkness of Sestero’s book, but for the most part a solid chunk of the backend of the film is taken up with celebrities simply re-doing bits from the original film, which gets old fairly quickly. Once you’ve witnessed the insanity of the original, a Zac Efron cameo as one of the characters just doesn’t have the same effect.
That’s not to say The Disaster Artist doesn’t have it’s charms — the film is still a blast, and Franco imbues Wiseau with enough mystery, comedy and genuine heartache that all the Oscar rumblings about his performance don’t seem so far-fetched. That said, if you haven’t seen The Room, you likely won’t be sold by The Disaster Artist — this is definitely a film made for fans of the cult classic, and in many ways feels like a labour of love tribute that just happens to be made by an all-star cast.
If anything, the film’s biggest flaw is how it condenses the story — here, audiences are cracking up and embracing The Room as an unintentional comedy right from the film’s opening, which allows for a greater arc for the two leads, but comes across as rushed and unearned. It also does away with the enthusiastic underground tape-trading network that eventually made The Room such a success in the first place, which might just be the most fascinating aspect of this whole story.
By leaning in hard towards the feel-good schmaltz of the film’s redemptive arc, Franco loses some of the intangible mystery of discovery that made The Room so much fun for audiences to uncover over the years. Still, Franco’s love of The Room is contagious, and the film does an incredible job of bringing the audience along into Tommy’s Wiseau’s utterly bizarre head space.