There are bad movies, then there is The Room, the hypnotically and entertainingly incompetent…ahem…”drama” by writer/director/star/alien exile Tommy Wiseau. A film where literally every aspect is done poorly, The Room’s legendary awfulness has inspired a cult fandom around it analogous to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the reigning queen of the midnight movie circuit. The film also inspired a detailed account of the film’s production by Greg Sestero, second lead of the film, called The Disaster Artist. Now with a film version of that book, Wiseau’s bizarre magnum opus has come full circle.
Like the book, it chronicles the strange friendship between Sestero (Dave Franco), an aspiring model/actor, and Wiseau (James Franco), a man of indeterminate age, accent, resources, and rationality. With both men struggling to make their mark in Hollywood, Wiseau decides to write, direct, and finance The Room as a vehicle for both of them (but primarily himself). Once the cameras start rolling, Wiseau’s complete lack of ability in every aspect of filmmaking is revealed, turning the shoot into a torturous ordeal for everybody involved and straining his friendship with Sestero. Then, of course, there’s what happens when the film finally premieres…
The film’s dynamic is set right from the first scene, which shows an acting class attended by both Sestero and Wiseau. Sestero stumbles his way through a scene from Waiting for Godot, undone by extreme stage fright. When Wiseau takes the stage, he offers a rather unique interpretation of the “Hey Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire that sees him slurring his words, writhing on the floor, and literally crawling all over the scenery. Neither man is truly ready for the stage, but in vastly different ways. While Sestero’s motivations are relatable and human, Wiseau comes off as an inscrutable enigma, but one that Sestero is drawn to for reasons he himself doesn’t fully understand.
It’s in the interaction between the two that the film finds its energy and movement. Sestero might be the narrator, but Wiseau is clearly the focus. As a person, Wiseau seems to not add up, for lack of a better description. Nothing about him makes logical sense, and that’s precisely what makes him (and by extension The Room) fascinating. The more we see of him and his supremely narcissistic and illogical behavior, the more we want to see. Much of the film’s humor comes in Franco’s performance of Wiseau as a kind of reverse fish-out-of-water; this is Tommy’s World, and the rest of us are just clueless tourists.
James Franco, who also directed the film, completely and totally nails every single eccentricity that makes Wiseau so intriguing, from his bizarre accent (which sounds Polish but which Wiseau insists is Cajun) to the off-puttingy fit body that Wiseau insists he must bare in The Room to make his character believable. J-Franco disappears inside his Wiseau impersonation with such dedication that it becomes uncanny. He not only understands Wiseau as a character in his own right but understands Wiseau’s connection to his film. The Room itself stars Wiseau as a universally-beloved man who’s future wife cheats on him with his best friend, and the longer The Disaster Artist goes on, the more Franco’s performance makes us realize how autobiographical The Room is.
Dave Franco, in comparison, has perhaps a less enviable role even while it seems like it should be less demanding. Wiseau is a larger-than-life figure, one that begs to be impersonated and mimicked. Sestero, by comparison, seems rather ordinary, as would virtually anyone else that had to work opposite Wiseau. D-Franco, however, remains as dedicated to his role as J-Franco does, and it’s through his complex shading of Sestero and his feelings toward Wiseau that audience begins to understand the unusual connection the two have. Wiseau and Sestero might not be the noblest of figures to add something to pop culture, but they’re just as inspirational in their own way.
It’s this connection that actually dominates the film, even if The Disaster Artist is being sold as a behind-the-scenes look at The Room. The actual filming of The Room takes up most of the film’s second act, but the first and third are dedicated to exploring the building up of Sestero’s and Wiseau’s friendship and its eventual unraveling. It’s a credit to the Franco brothers, who have never worked in a film together before, that their portrayals of both men are sympathetic in different measures and feed off of each other in a productive cycle. Even when Wiseau is at his worst, he never seems like a true and complete villain because he’s framed through his friendship with Sestero.
While the interaction between the Francos makes the first and third acts flow well, their pace still seems rather slow when compared to the swiftly-moving second act. In fact, the second act is so full of activity that it makes the third act seem more than a bit disappointing and drawn-out in comparison. The film’s true climax comes not when The Room is finally screened for the public but at the film’s midway point, when Wiseau is filming the infamous “Oh, hi Mark” scene in The Room. Through countless takes where Wiseau constantly screws up the lines he wrote for himself, we fully feel the frustration of the crew as well as their elation when Wiseau finally gets it right. It’s a scene as gripping as it is hilarious, its energy and tension palpably building with each of Wiseau’s bungled line readings.
With the focus so heavily on Sestero and Wiseau, the cast of supporting characters sometimes gets lost, especially when J-Franco is at his most Wiseauean. It’s a shame, because there is a lot of great stuff going on in the background from a pumped-up Zac Efron as an actor who takes his role as “Chris-R” in The Room far too seriously to a literal walk-on cameo from Sharon Stone as a steely, chain-smoking casting agent. Seth Rogen, as The Room’s script supervisor, gives one of his most subdued and naturalistic performances, while Alison Brie is effortlessly appealing as Amber, Sestero’s exceedingly patient girlfriend.
It might be truly impossible to explain The Room to those who’ve never heard of it, much less explain how it developed such a fervent and dedicated cult following. In some ways, that makes it difficult to explain the allure of The Disaster Artist. Like The Room, it’s something that must be seen to truly be understood, and like The Room, it’s a fascinating experience. With both Francos commanding the screen in different ways, it’s as much a study of the humans behind The Room as it is a chronicle of the foolhardy task of making it in the first place. Leave it to one of the most notorious “best worst movies” to inspire something so entertaining.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B