Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process,” E.B. White once wrote. His words apply to The Room, an inept drama from writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau that found instant cult status upon its release in 2003, earning the coveted word-of-mouth review “It’s so bad it’s good.” Ten years later, Wiseau’s costar, Greg Sestero, published a behind-the-scenes book called The Disaster Artist that chronicles his friendship with Wiseau and the clumsy production of The Room. Now James Franco has directed a film adaptation of the book in which he plays Wiseau and his brother Dave plays Sestero. Both the book and the movie try to explain what makes The Room such a phenomenon, but Franco loses patience and takes a scalpel to the story.
The Room is less a film than a jumble of B-movie tropes. Ostensibly the story belongs to Lisa (Juliette Danielle), who is engaged to Johnny (Wiseau) and repeatedly cheats on him with his best friend, Mark (Sestero). But The Room routinely veers into situations that belong in an entirely different movie. One character is shaken down by his drug dealer, and another casually mentions that she has breast cancer, but these story ideas evaporate from the narrative almost as soon as they’re introduced. Wiseau flaunts the film’s garbage production values, reusing footage (mostly during sex scenes, the first of which is less than ten minutes into the movie).
And yet people clamor to see The Room. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it routinely sells out midnight screenings, where fans enact such rituals as tossing a football around while clad in tuxedos, just as Johnny, Mark, and a few other characters do in the movie as they wait for a wedding photographer. Plastic spoons are hurled at the screen whenever a framed photo of one (a stock image Wiseau never bothered to change) pops up onscreen. Fans yell along with Johnny as he cries out, “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!,” a line appropriated from his favorite actor, James Dean, in Rebel Without a Cause.
To this day a sense of mystery surrounds The Room. Who the hell is Tommy Wiseau? He speaks with an eastern-European accent and looks like an action figure that’s been tossed in the microwave, yet he claims to be from New Orleans and subtracts decades when giving his age (he claims to be in his 20s but appears to be in his late 50s). For no apparent reason, he shot his film simultaneously on 35-millimeter film and high-definition video, using sets and green screens when he had easy access to real locations.
The Disaster Artist opens in San Francisco, where Greg, attending an acting class, sees Tommy play Stanley Kowalski’s famous meltdown scene from A Streetcar Named Desire by writhing on the ground. Impressed by Tommy’s psychotic commitment, Greg asks to be his scene partner, thus beginning an odd friendship, and on a whim the men move to Los Angeles in search of fame. Tommy faces nothing but rejection as startled casting directors watch this Dracula audition for leading-man roles. So he does what any red-blooded American would do: he writes his own movie.
James Franco treats these prefilming moments with a light hand, letting Tommy speak for himself. Greg’s early encounters with Tommy are presented without judgment, which allows Greg’s admiration to drive the narrative. Tommy never does anything halfway: in one scene he prods Greg to stand up in a diner and perform a scene; later, after they watch Rebel Without a Cause at a local theater, Tommy insists that they take a three-hour car trip to the roadside memorial where Dean died. Greg is unfazed when he learns that Tommy’s apartment in LA is only one bedroom. Tommy offers the bedroom to Greg, opting to cordon off part of the living room with thick black curtains for himself.
Franco’s Tommy is a caricature. He expertly mimics Wiseau’s unplaceable accent, robotic snicker, and potato-sack appearance, but when Tommy goes through his career reckoning in LA, Franco never earns our sympathy. Tommy’s epiphany, when he decides to make his own movie, is played as if he’s decided to order cheesecake after dinner. The Disaster Artist ends with a split-screen sequence in which scenes from The Room appear next to Franco’s perfect re-creations, yet he emphasizes accuracy over character, and he lowers the dramatic stakes by playing Tommy as even-keeled. It’s impossible to root for a mannequin.
Franco’s directorial choices are most pronounced when The Room is being filmed, though even then they’re hardly noticeable. He apes his mentor Judd Apatow by letting Tommy’s crew (including such comedy favorites as Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, and Charlyne Yi) riff on the scenes being played, peppering Tommy with questions in the key of why. Why does the mom have breast cancer? Why is the drug dealer named Chris-R and not just Chris? Why does Tommy, mounting Lisa in bed, look as if he’s having sex with her navel? As the shoot drags on, Greg becomes the Tommy whisperer: when Tommy blows take after take, the crew members grow so frustrated that they chant his dialogue in unison—it’s as if we’re watching the crew watch The Room—but Greg hands Tommy a water bottle to hurl in anger, which is all he needs to nail his lines on the next take.
There’s one scene from the book that didn’t make it to the screen but explains a lot about Wiseau. Sestero recalls that when they went to movies together, Wiseau would often yell at the screen, but one film left him speechless: Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Played by Matt Damon, the title character is a lower-class climber who lies, cheats, and finally commits murder in order to steal the identity of the wealthy, scholarly Dickie Greenleaf. Tommy may not go to quite such extremes in The Disaster Artist, but he wills himself to become a leading man in a motion picture. James Franco mocks him anyway, giggling as he expires on the dissecting table. v