I once judged at a high school speech contest where an entry in the playacting category was a group of teens performing the “Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise” sketch from a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE SHOW done back in 1975. For those who’ve seen the skit, you’ll remember that John Belushi did a hilarious imitation of William Shatner refusing to give up the ship’s bridge even though an NBC executive (played by Elliot Gould) told him the show was cancelled. As crew members disassembled the set, Belushi’s Shatner refused to drop character and leave the premises. So, what was to be judged of the high schoolers' interpretation of that skit? It wasn’t really acting, or a theatrical piece, of course. It was nothing more than a riff on John Belushi’s imitation of William Shatner playing the character of Captain Kirk, a performance four generations removed.
For me, THE DISASTER ARTIST felt all too similar.
In the new film that just opened, written by Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber, and directed by and starring James Franco, the story feels less like a genuine one with real people, and more like a satirical riff on THE ROOM, the god-awful cult movie it’s inspired by. What it does best is recreate the most egregious scenes from THE ROOM, with its actors doing spot-on imitations of the awful performances by those cast in the original 2003 film. What it doesn't succeed nearly enough at is helping the viewer understand who these people really were and why they were participating in making such a disastrous film. It should have have been way more insightful into dissecting the terrible script and giving us a behind-the-scenes critique. Instead, it mostly plays as a really good riff on the original material.
So what was it exactly that made THE ROOM so awful, enabling it to gain its cult status as a movie “so bad it’s good”? In a word, everything. Budding filmmaker Tommy Wiseau wrote a god-awful screenplay, directed it himself in the most amateurish way, with coarse and cheap production values, starred in it himself, and filled his supporting cast with actors just as terrible as he was.
His script was supposed to be a tragic love triangle between Johnny (Tommy Wiseau), his girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle), and his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). But it was shallow and vacuous, never creating a single likable character or making us care a hoot about anyone in this oddly unromantic tale. To add insult to injury, Wiseau's meandering script lost track of a number of secondary plot threads along the way, and his dialogue range false in every single scene.
To make matters worse, Wiseau directed with the élan of a sledgehammer. His lighting and production values were cheap and unconvincing, attempting to recreate the San Francisco Bay area with fuzzy green screen effects. The love scenes, trying to be artsy-fartsy, were mostly the latter. And Wiseau's attempt at a tragic ending showcased Johnny committing suicide right after rubbing his crotch with Lisa's nightgown. Yep, Johnny went from masturbation to murder in a matter of seconds.
A monosyllabic mumbler of broken English, Wiseau’s vibe didn't help his film either. He came off as aging Eurotrash (and still does), and he came of as vain in comical ways. Easily in his late 40's, Wiseau wore his mane long, dyed jet-black, and his wardrobe included dated 80’s cargo pants. Worst of all, he had a giggling tic that rendered him infantile in scene after scene. Johnny came off as a lounge lizard by way of Rasputin, yet Wiseau thought audiences would buy his character as a wildly successful businessman who was adored by everyone he knows.
THE DISASTER ARTIST seems content mostly to laugh at Wiseau's inanity, rather than illuminate it or what drove him. At its best, and funniest, this film works spectacularly at recreating the worst scenes in THE ROOM in every aspect, from the exact lighting to set design. But ultimately, THE DISASTER ARTIST fails to answer why anyone would sign on to work with a loser like Wiseau, film such a horrible script, and stick around during all of his juvenile and misogynist antics on set.
It's also a film that truly requires the audience seeing THE ROOM beforehand to understand so much of what they're satirizing. If you haven't seen the source material, too much of THE DISASTER ARTIST will be lost on you. So, who is the film really for then? To truly appreciate it, you probably have to be one of the midnight movie mavens, or someone from the critical community who has grown to love its legend and trashiness.
But couldn't the film have delved more into what made Wiseau tick to make the film more appealing to newbies? In this film, the character of Wiseau displays absolutely no talent whatsoever and the film fails to truly answer what made him think he even belonged in the show business. And his character is presented inconsistently too. He's a boob who doesn't know about basic filmmaking techniques, yet he's a student of MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE who's able to talk about Bryan Cranston's work on the series? Who is this guy, both so naive and so savvy?
And when Wiseau is shown in example after example of being a asshat bullying everyone on set, why doesn't anyone set him straight or simply walk? He's over schedule and over-budget, after all. And yet, even with all that, everyone gladly attends the premiere of the debacle that they went through with him. Really? And those that do attend seem to believe the film will actually be good. Only halfway through its screening do they realize that it's any utter piece of crap and thus, they start laughing derisively. Didn't any of these more experienced veterans of Tinsel Town know that the script of THE ROOM doomed it from the start? It begs far too many questions.
James Franco does a decent imitation of Wiseau, but his portrayal fails to fill in the many blanks. The accomplished actor has admitted during press junket interviews that they conspicuously chose to leave Wiseau a mystery, not really wanting to dig into his origins, where his money came from to finance the film, or why he thought to go into show biz. The film makes a half-assed suggestion that it was Wiseau’s need to be loved, but that seems like surface psychology at best. (Who doesn’t want to be loved?) And by failing to answer such key questions, the film misses out on the opportunity to make this movie more meaningful. As it stands, it's a reasonably fun riff, but at the end of the day, it doesn't have much to say.
The film could have, and probably should have, been a scathing satire about Hollywood delusion, something in the vein of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), Blake Edward’s S.O.B. (1981), or Christopher Guest’s THE BIG PICTURE (1985). Instead, what it really wants to be is a sweet, buddy comedy about Wiseau and Sestero. And in doing so, the film gives into maudlin schmaltz. Sestero helped write the book THE DISASTER ARTIST with author Tom Bissell a decade after the debacle, and both the book and this adaptation of it let him off the hook far too easily.
Was Sestero truly that insightful about all the ineptitude while the film was being made? THE DISASTER ARTIST movie wants us to believe so. He’s constantly dropping his jaw, or rolling his eyes at all of Wiseau’s craziness, but why work with him then? Why be his friend? And why go along with a shit storm that started with such a crap script?
The film ends up truly being more about Sestero than Wiseau, and it's his character that has the arc. It paints too sweet a portrait of him, perhaps to garner his cooperation, or to make a likable hero for the piece, but it's hard to buy that Sestero was a smart and talented guy sucked into Wiseau's orbit. And the concentration on the smarmy bromance between the two veers the focus away from lampooning Tinsel Town to its fullest.
Dave Franco tries his best to make Sestero a real person, and talented folks like Seth Rogan, Alison Brie, and Jackie Weaver valiantly attempt to breathe life into their one-note roles, but their characters all seem too knowing and judgmental about Wiseau’s eccentricities here. Would they all really be rolling their eyes at every mistake Wiseau made while filming? If they're so good, why agree to film such a bad script? If you've seen THE ROOM, you know that Wiseau cast actors who barely rose to the level of soap opera day players, yet we’re supposed to believe that all of them here are so savvy to know that Wiseau was an utterly incompetent filmmaker. Doubtful.
What’s even worse is how the film panders to the hipper-than-thou crowd, those who love THE ROOM because it is so awful. Movie buffs and film critics alike revel in THE ROOM because it's cool to dig trash in all its irony. I think the critical community has actually gone way overboard in embracing this film, even awarding James Franco and its screenplay some tony prizes this past week. They've done so because they take pride in being in on the joke. Sure, THE DISASTER ARTIST is at times a hoot and a half vamping on a bad film, but it's no LADY BIRD or THE BIG SICK, two of the truly phenomenal comedies this year.
You know what is actually the funniest thing about all of this? It's the fact that Wiseau now goes to all the midnight screenings of THE ROOM to hear people laugh and deride what he made as serious art. Equally amusing is that he sits alongside Franco for the press junkets and talk show appearances and smiles while the movie star openly mocks him. Is Wiseau a clown laughing on the outside but crying on the inside now? Or is he just one laughing all the way to the bank?