Friendship and the movies
By Zeke Trautenberg
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) is one of contemporary cinema’s most notorious cult films. Fans of The Room celebrate its extraneous subplots, continuity errors, and histrionic dialogue. Wiseau's exemplar of paracinema was released in one theater and grossed less than two-thousand dollars. Yet despite its inauspicious beginnings, the film has since become a midnight movie sensation.
The Disaster Artist, directed by the hyperactive writer, director, and actor James Franco, tells the improbable story behind the making of The Room. Franco’s film is based on the memoir by Wiseau’s co-star and best friend, Greg Sestero (played in the film by Franco’s brother Dave). Franco plays the mysterious Wiseau with the intensity of Daniel Day Lewis and the measured crazy of Wild at Heart-era Nicholas Cage. Franco brings technical skill and a real admiration for Wiseau to his performance. The filmmaker and actor replicates his subject's vaguely Eastern European accent, permanent slouch, and tendency to omit definite articles from his speech with uncanny precision.
The Disaster Artist opens in San Francisco in 1998. Greg and Tommy are enrolled in the same acting class. After Greg botches a scene from Waiting for Godot, Tommy volunteers to take the stage. The camera tracks him from behind as he shuffles onstage. His menacing silhouette, crowned with shoulder-length black hair, gives way to a tragicomic vision as the camera cuts to reveal Tommy from head-on. Dressed like a swashbuckling glam rocker by way of Nosferatu, Tommy proceeds to wail and trample across the stage, a mortally wounded creature set loose from the shadow world.
After the acting class, Greg approaches Tommy in the parking lot and asks if they can do a scene together. Tommy agrees and they plan to meet up to rehearse. Tommy picks Greg up at his parents’ house, and proceeds to pursue the handsome Greg in an absurd day-long courtship in which the duo rehearse a scene at full volume in a restaurant, toss a football, and sip Redbull.
Later, the pair make a late-night pilgrimage to the site of James Dean’s death, the aspiring actors seal their friendship with a pinky-swear. While returning from Dean’s memorial, Tommy suggests that they move together to his “pied-a-terre” in Los Angeles to pursue their dreams of stardom together. After relocating to Los Angeles, the two struggle to break into show business. Greg gets an agent (Sharon Stone, in one of the film’s many celebrity cameos), while Tommy, ever oblivious as to the limits of his talent and how others perceive him, pursues auditions for “All-American” roles.
After a disastrous encounter-cum-audition with a producer (Judd Apatow) at dinner time in busy restaurant, Tommy despairs for his future. Greg offhandedly suggests that his friend takes matters into his own hands and make his own movie. Tommy, a master of doing things his own way, embraces the idea wholeheartedly. After completing a script and casting himself and Greg in the lead roles, Tommy assembles the rest of his cast and crew.
In addition to faithfully recreating scenes from the original film, Franco depicts Tommy’s transformation from an earnest first-time filmmaker into a megalomaniacal director. By the end of the much-delayed shoot, Tommy turns abusive. The director berates his on-screen love interest, refuses to furnish water to the crew, and alienates Greg by insisting that his co-star and best friend owes him a debt of gratitude.
The film's final act takes place during the night of the premiere of The Room and depicts the reconciliation of these two unlikely friends. Retaking their courtship, Tommy picks Greg up in a white stretch limo to take him to the theater. As Tommy's film plays for an audience for the first time, the camera alternates between the screen and the audience. As the film progresses, the audience reaction changes from uncomfortable silence to howling laughter. We are witness to the the construction and reception of the film as a so-bad-it's-good cult comedy. Wiseau, who conceives of his film to be a heartfelt portrait of human emotion, is driven to tears by the audience's laughter and abandons the theater. Greg follows him to the lobby and coaxes him back inside, telling him that Hitchcock never made an audience laugh with such force. Tommy, embracing the audience’s reaction, accepts a triumphant curtain call.
The friendship between the voluble director and his good-natured co-star lies at the core of The Disaster Artist. Although the film repeatedly alludes to the homoerotic nature of Tommy and Greg's relationship—exemplified by pinky swears and Tommy's "Babyface" nickname for Greg—it primarily plays this suggestion of romantic love between the two men for comedic effect. The film is more interested in the power dynamics between the two men. Tommy is both Greg’s friend and his benefactor. Tommy knows that Greg’s friendship is not unconditional: his apartment and money undergird their friendship. Ultimately, Tommy’s poorly executed melodrama, which centers on two friends, mirrors his own convoluted relationship with Greg. In Franco’s film, friendship, a phenomenon rooted in sympathy and reciprocity, becomes a metaphor for filmmaking.
These same tenets of friendship inform the relationship between The Disaster Artist and The Room. Franco treats Wiseau’s film as a source of pleasure (and laughter) and depicts the process of making the film as an earnest, though misguided and poorly executed endeavor. Even as Franco depicts the muddled script and slipshod creation of The Room, he treats it as a production worth dialoguing with and recreating. Like a good friend, The Disaster Artist sets out to make light of its cinematic inspiration, and in the process, cannot help but burnish the myth of the man who made a virtue of indulging his instincts and realizing his dream, not with talent or skill, but with cash. The Disaster Artist depicts Wiseau as a later-day Norma Desmond, determined to bring himself and “Planet Tommy” to the screen for all to see.
Director: James Franco
Running Time: 103 minutes
Photos: New Line Cinema