I sometimes regret that I was not among the midnight movie hounds who saw Tommy Wiseau’s The Room with a laughing, bellowing crowd. Instead, I watched it on video at home, by myself, where my bewilderment at the film’s ineptitude quickly transformed into suffocating boredom and a sense of waste. I also felt bad for the guy. It takes a special kind of misfortune for your life and work to be defined by the dumbest thing you’ve ever done. I didn’t want to dwell on the wreckage: He tried, he failed, let’s move on and not spend too much time gawking at the results, no matter how absurdly awful.
Wiseau, though, had different ideas, and over the past decade and a half, he has parlayed the catastrophe of The Room into a national phenomenon, screening it to packed houses and becoming something of a celebrity, good-naturedly profiting off the audiences who’ve come to revel in his artistic misfortune. And now there’s a major motion picture, directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau, that recounts the creation of The Room, casting Wiseau’s journey as a sweet tale of friendship and all-American, roll-up-your-sleeves gumption.
The all-American part is crucial. Throughout The Disaster Artist, Franco’s Wiseau emphasizes the very American-ness of his endeavor — making a movie on his own (substantial) dime — and he likes to describe his character Johnny, the protagonist of The Room, as “a true American hero.” And Tommy himself is a guy who claims he loves to play football but can’t throw one to save his life. When people tell him that he’d make a perfect movie villain, what with his heavy accent and odd face and “malevolent presence,” he reprimands them: “I hero, you all villain.... Yeah, you laugh at the hero. That what villain do.” Wiseau claims to hail from New Orleans, but nobody buys it. He claims to be in his twenties, but nobody buys that, either. He seems to have access to “a bottomless pit” of money, but he won’t say where it comes from. He’s bought into this idea that to be a success in America you have to be young and confident and the hero of your own story. Not to mention aggressive: He promises to “never give up on dream.” He’s in thrall to James Dean and ’50s-era Marlon Brando. He must get a kick out of the fact that he’s now being played by James Franco, who once played Dean on television.
Franco portrays Wiseau as a haughty but charismatic weirdo, someone who isn’t well-liked but who definitely gets noticed. We first see him shrieking up a storm in a San Francisco acting class, putting his own embarrassingly shouty spin on Stanley Kowalski. This attracts the attention of Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a fellow student who has the opposite problem: He’s too shy and withdrawn, unable and unwilling to put himself out there. The two become fast friends, and move out to Los Angeles together. Tommy has money — lots of it — and drive. But he has no talent, and seems unable to read anything resembling a social signal. He approaches a clearly irritated Judd Apatow at a restaurant and starts screaming out Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy before he’s forcibly removed. It’s only then that he decides to make his own movie.
The Disaster Artist at times mixes two subtly different types of behind-the-scenes subgenres: a tale of indie-film calamity (think Living in Oblivion) and a tale of delusional but adorable, can-do scrappiness (think Ed Wood or Bowfinger). Obviously, both subgenres get a lot of mileage out of the spectacle of things going hilariously wrong on set, but The Disaster Artist doesn’t exactly dwell on this aspect of the story. Indeed, I was struck by how smoothly the shoot of The Room seems to go, at least technically speaking. Sure, the actresses are creeped out by Tommy, and the actors have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing and his crew is flabbergasted at his incompetence. But Tommy’s problem isn’t a compromised vision or lack of resources or bad luck; it’s that he manages to make exactly the movie he set out to make.
Franco’s own movie works best as a portrait of the complicated friendship between Greg and Tommy, and it’s an inspired idea to have real-life brothers Dave and James play best friends — we can sense alternating undercurrents of exasperation and affection beneath every exchange. (This casting gambit recalls Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson playing lifelong buds in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, still the best acting job either of those actors have done.) Their relationship — punctuated occasionally by Greg’s bewilderment at Tommy’s actions, and Tommy’s regular displays of his surreally volatile temper — provides much more drama than the actual production of The Room, whose fate is a foregone conclusion.
The Disaster Artist is engaging, funny, at times touching and made with the best of intentions, but I felt unusually anxious for much of the film. Even though we know that Wiseau has gleefully accepted and monetized his own humiliation, there’s something fundamentally depressing about the spectacle of this man’s desperate need to fit in — and his utter inability to do so. I cringed — and not in a funny-ha-ha way — every time he had to explain that he was American, or misspoke, or was confronted with something fundamental that he was unable to grasp. (He’s never heard of Home Alone? Deport him!)
Maybe it hits too close to home. I wonder if there’s something that marks anyone who’s come to the U.S. and tried to blend in, no matter how successful they’ve been at it — a kind of hidden wound that occasionally threatens to emerge with just the right combination of emotional prompts. Of course, that’s not unique to those of us who’ve come here from other countries. A sense of gnawing inadequacy is a universal feeling, and The Disaster Artist certainly mines the notion that there’s a little bit of the outsider in everybody — which is exactly the kind of magnanimity you’d expect from such affable insiders as the Franco brothers and the other Apatowians that litter the film’s cast.
Then again, who’s to say that Wiseau hasn’t succeeded on his own terms? On opening night, Tommy overcomes his initial embarrassment at the howls of laughter in the theater and basks in the glow of his audience’s delighted applause. And in so doing, he does more than just find a silver lining in failure, or reclaim his narrative. No, the failure of The Room merely means that Tommy Wiseau gives up his dream of achieving fame through accomplishment for the greater glory of achieving fame through notoriety. He abandons the guise of tormented artist and assumes the mantle of a self-aware huckster. And what’s more American than that?