Back in 2010, I saw The Room. By then it had started to gather a head of steam as “the worst movie ever made” (and there’s a compelling argument for that, not just hype), and the beginning of the cult following that fills theaters these days. In those days it wan’t so much the event movie it is today, where everyone attends thinking they’re the next ironic comedy genius, riffing as the movie unreels. I don’t normally watch movies like that (though when Star Wars:TOT was rereleased in the late 90s, a friend and I got ejected for riffing on The Empire Strikes Back. Mea culpa, mea culpa …), I love and respect the medium too much to do that. The Room is, to me, simply a piece of shit movie.
I didn’t have any great interest in seeing James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, the story-behind-the-story of the making of The Room because of my disdain for the original movie itself, but I was in Iowa visiting my daughter and we decided to see a late Saturday night show. It didn’t give me any greater respect for either the movie or Tommy Wiseau, the still-mysterious auteur behind it, but this kinda-sorta biopic is pretty entertaining. And I get to show two trailers in the review!
The movie is adapted from the book of the same name by Greg Sestero, one of the principle actors in The Room, and played by Dave Franco in The Disaster Artist. Sestero is as awful in The Room as anyone else in it, and the fact that his acting career since then has been virtually non-existent is enough to tell you that he picked the wrong vocation. Also, I haven’t read the book – but the fact that it has a co-writer (Tom Bissell) is a strong indicator that Sestero provided the material but didn’t actually write it himself. I don’t bring this up to disparage Sestero, but to hold up Sestero to D.Franco’s portrayal of him, which is a mostly terrific acting job by the younger Franco. I’d never considered Franco much of an actor, but under the direction of James Franco (and maybe this is why), he turns in a career performance, much like the young Tom Cruise that he bears more than a passing resemblance to. He’s the clear winner, but the entire movie is highly watchable from start to finish.
I only know about Tommy Wiseau from what I’ve read about him on the internet, and sure, I’m more curious about him now that I’ve watched a movie version of him over-emote for half the screen time, but The Disaster Artist offers up something more than just a half assed moviemaker. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, the “real” Tommy Wiseau comes across as a painfully flawed man, driven to emulate his acting idols and pursue a career in the movies. I mean, who hasn’t had that dream, and how many have actually pursued that dream only to find it dead in water as soon as they arrive in LA? It’s an unforgiving city that crushes more dreams than it fulfills by a ratio of roughly a million to one. A city where almost everyone who wants to get into the entertainment industry seems trapped in an endless loop of auditions and deals-on-the-horizon. Wiseau, though, had a bigger advantage than many of those could-bes: money, and a lot of it.
However Wiseau made his money (unknown, though likely it was from 80s real estate ventures) he put it where his mouth was, but nowhere near where his mind was. The Room, a movie which today might cost somewhere in the $25K – $50K range filmed as is (and more judiciously), reportedly cost Wiseau a staggering $6 MILLION. And if you’ve seen The Room, you’ll also have seen that almost none of that made it to the screen. In what’s surely one of the greatest acts of cinematic profligacy in history, Wiseau used HD AND 35mm cameras, green screen for simple exterior shots, had sets built to (badly) mimic mundane outdoor locations hat could be found within blocks of the soundstage. He bought equipment that only ever gets rented, at a fraction of the cost, by indie productions. The list goes on, but when you have a bank account that’s described by a minor character as a “bottomless pit”, you don’t have that mental accountant on one shoulder telling you to back down. Not so dissimilar to people who win vasts sums of money and have no imagination by which to use it. Buy, buy, buy. Wiseau’s ambition to be a movie star, no matter how much it cost, essentially ruined whatever chances he had to make it, and blinded him to the viable option of being a producer instead of an auteur. With his resources, setting up a small production company could have paid massive dividends. Instead, his folly has turned him into a notorious figure, mocked by the masses.
James Franco’s movie, however, tries to make Wiseau human, and succeeds in doing this more than it fails – the problem is Wiseau himself. Throughout the movie I spent my time wondering who the hell this guy was, and why is he talking like that? When the screen time is spent showing Wiseau to be a pathetic, tragic figure it works, and I found myself being sympathetic to him, but many scenes show him as vain, staggeringly self-deluded, absolutely talentless, and an unpleasant person to be around. Having seen The Room, you get the sense that the real Wiseau is more of the latter, using his money not just to make a movie, but to control people into doing what he wanted. While Ari Graynor (who looks more like Kate Hudson than Kate Hudson does) doesn’t have to go topless in the movie, her real life counterpart Juliette Danielle did, in the awkward love scenes. In post-Weinstein Hollywood, it’s easy to believe that Wiseau didn’t just want to make and star in a movie, he wanted all the “perks” that came with it too, which makes him more than a little repugnant.
In a “true story” movie like The Disaster Artist, it’s too easy to spend time speculating on just how “true” an adaptation is. Me, I don’t care. A movie by definition is fiction, regardless of how the elements were inspired by heresay and anecdotal “evidence”. History is written by winners, they say, and autobiographies are written by unreliable narrators. Like all such movies, The Disaster Artist must be judged on its own merits as a movie. It works, and mostly works well. Franco is really good, but so is James Franco – not so much as Wiseau, who remains a mostly unintentionally comic figure despite the pathos of certain scenes, but as a director. It feels like the best work Franco has done to date in this role. It’s almost fitting that James Franco is the one to direct and star in this movie. Comparing Franco to Wiseau, you get the how to and the how NOT to.
Pretty entertaining, but you should see The Room first, and not as part of an ironic MST3K wannabe crowd.
© Andrew Hope, 2017