Oh, hi reader. You are quite possibly sick of hearing about The Room, marketed to irony-devouring film freaks as the ‘best bad movie ever made’. Released in 2007 and recouping practically zero of its — frankly unbelievable — $6 million budget, Tommy Wiseau’s great auteur debacle found resurrection as a quotable ‘so bad it’s amazing’ treasure. The catchphrases, rabid cult buzz and midnight screenings have clued a generation of fans in on the joke, and with saturation there is a dulling of the film’s weirdness. One of the pleasures of The Disaster Artist, the James Franco-directed origin story of The Room, is being offered a seat at Ground Zero, witnessing in real time the stream of mistakes necessary for a truly wonderful failure to bloom.
Screenwriting team Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer and The Fault in Our Stars) shape their tale of film and friendship from Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s blow-by-blow account of working with Wiseau (Sestero, as fans will know, played The Room‘s Mark, who cuckolds his best friend, Wiseau’s Johnny). Greg, played by a frosty-tipped Dave Franco, is a struggling San Francisco actor who meets Tommy at an acting workshop and is blown away by his indifference to public embarrassment, a tolerance that would serve him well in the future. When Tommy reveals he has an apartment in Los Angeles he never uses (Tommy, a biographical black hole, is full of surprises), the two head off to follow their James Dean dreams and make it big.
After the initial buzz, hard reality. The decent, blandly handsome Greg is struggling to get his calls returned, while Tommy perplexes casting directors with his idiosyncratic cadence, a clearly Slavic accent he tries to pass off as Cajun, and his Transylvanian gargoyle demeanour. Fed up of rejection, Tommy decides to go it alone, writing his own script with roles for himself and his best friend, and splashing out his mysterious wealth on equipment and studio space. The Room, he declares on shooting’s opening day, is going to be a great American movie. Bit by bit, the scale of his delusion becomes evident, fracturing his friendship with Greg and sowing eye-rolling alienation amongst the crew.
The Room is in part compelling because of its incongruity; competent enough in basic construction but utterly bewildering in its misapprehension of how people actually speak and interact with eachother. Tommy, as played by Franco, is basically a human version of the film he made. Welcome to Planet Tommy, he tells Greg early on, and there is something hypnotically extra-terrestrial about the persona. He pierces the atmosphere like a violent comet, fully-formed and otherworldly. Everyone else braces for impact.
Franco speaks and moves like “Johnny” speaks and moves, odd pauses and inappropriate laughs, a hilarious and unexpectedly affectionate act of pastiche. As production eats up the shooting schedule, cast and crew are sucked into Tommy’s orbital pull, including Seth Rogen’s script supervisor and The League’s Paul Scheer as First DP, flabbergasted professionals forced to run interference on their director’s mood swings and questionable approach to story and character logic. Life on set devolves into a gruelling comedy of bewilderment.
The Disaster Artist dines out liberally on the absurdity of Tommy’s behaviour and creative vision, but is, crucially, not unkind. Tommy is melancholic and misunderstood, quite possibly nursing a personality disorder induced by a car accident. His distance from normality marks him as a permanent outsider, only intensified by his paranoia and hyper-sensitivity to perceived betrayal. His movie star fantasies are unrooted in any real understanding of how to make them real.
Tommy is an unknown quantity, right to the end, which makes a detailed character study next to impossible. Where he’s from; how old he is; where on Earth he got his money from; and what exactly is driving his obsession. These remain mysteries. No doubt the full story is even wilder and sadder than the one we have, but The Disaster Artist is still a funny, precise and weirdly entrancing homage. A modern Hollywood fable about ego, failure and (accidental) redemption. Conor Smyth
The Disaster Artist is out on wide release and is showing at Queen’s Film Theatre.