If you haven’t seen The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s Tennesee William[sic]-esque drama, you really should, even if you don’t plan to see The Disaster Artist. It’s a nonsensical, glorious mess of a film, that has spawned a dedicated, cos-playing, spoon-throwing following. If you go into The Disaster Artist blind, I really don’t know how you’ll react. The Room is the farcical foundation on which The Disaster Artist is built, and The Disaster Artist is a superficial, sometime sycophantic love letter to The Room.
Tommy Wiseau is a mysteriously wealthy actor and filmmaker who claims to be from New Orleans, a fact belied by his marble-mouthed Eastern European accent. We first meet him in The Disaster Artist in a San Francisco acting class, where he performs a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. And by “perform” I mean he repeatedly screams “Stella!” at the top of lungs while throwing chairs, climbing the scenery, and writing around on the stage. Witness to this exhibition is Greg Sestero, an insecure aspiring actor who is mesmerised by Wiseau’s complete lack of inhibition. Greg asks to become Tommy’s scene partner, and the two become friends, bonding over their dreams of fame (and, we think to ourselves, their lack of talent).
This fictional Wiseau is played by James Franco (who also directs), and it is a truly transformative performance. The Room devotees (Roomies?) will be familiar with Wiseau’s bizarre accent, his apparent contempt for tenses, his strange turns of phrase, and Franco mimics them with uncanny precision. It isn’t just the voice, though. From interviews, the book on which The Disaster Artist is based, and The Room itself, we get the impression that Wiseau is either so incredibly self-confident as to be totally oblivious to his own eccentricities; or else he is so insecure that he inhabits a shell of blind bravado. It is that dichotomy that Franco nails, that mesmerises us just as it does Greg (played by brother Dave Franco). The rest of the cast do good work, but they pale in comparison to Franco’s Wiseau.
Unfortunately, Franco’s stellar (“Stella!”) performance is undermined by his reluctance, as director, to delve into the disturbing darkness at the heart of Tommy, his life, and The Room‘s production. The book The Disaster Artist (written by the real life Greg Sestero) paints Wiseau as supportive and generous, but also manipulative, clingy, and paranoid. Franco offers brief glimpses of Wiseau’s other side, such as when his refusal to install air conditioning on set results in an elderly actress fainting. But this is written off as harmless when the actress proclaims, “The worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else.”
I suspect the real Wiseau’s involvement here. Tommy Wiseau is The Room’s George Lucas, gatekeeper to a (questionable) piece of art that is to be enjoyed in his terms only. And Franco seems only too happy to oblige, bending over backwards to portray Wiseau as king of the eccentric dreamers.
And it works, for the most part. A lot of potential criticism is deflected by The Disaster Artist‘s spotlight on the bewildering joy with which The Room is viewed by so many. The unironic affection that Franco feels for Wiseau’s film is gleefully apparent in his film, and so Wiseau, for and by Franco, must become this enigmatic purveyor of hilarious outsider art. But there is a darker, more fascinating story to be told here, and a darker, more mesmerising depiction of Tommy Wiseau.
The Disaster Artist ends with scenes from The Room played side by side with Franco and company’s recreations of them. Did Franco, while making one film, meticulously recreate another, shot for shot? If he did, what a decadent waste of resources. A fitting waste, in a way, given that The Room (with a budget of $6 million that barely looks like $1 million on screen) was nothing but waste. But Wiseau’s waste birthed a truly remarkable film. The Disaster Artist, to quote Jack Black, is not a remarkable film. It’s just a tribute.