“Give me your pinky”
If I hadn’t known already, James Franco‘s The Disaster Artist confirms it: I’m not a connoisseur of the “cringe laugh.” I’ve always been the one attendee of a midnight screening of a C-list film who isn’t laughing because the artists who put what I’m watching together didn’t mean for it to be funny. I’m filled with second-hand embarrassment instead. Some people can allow themselves to ignore the fact that they’re laughing at the cast and crew in these scenarios rather than the finished product and some can’t. I can appreciate the appeal of being in the former camp and can intellectualize it as far as saying the film is no longer bound to intent once it is unleashed upon the public, but my heart just isn’t in it.
There’s no better example than Tommy Wiseau‘s The Room, an infamous self-produced work that has enjoyed an implausible shelf life as the twenty-first century’s communal movie-going experience a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But while the latter was built for just such a response with its blatant cheese and constant hamming for the camera, Wiseau’s debut had misguided aspirations of high drama. So my experience watching it can be summed up with the word “mortification.” I couldn’t bring myself to laugh because I was too busy cringing at what seemed to be a bunch of nice, well-meaning people duped by a megalomaniac so insecure about his self-worth that he feigned narcissism to survive. Its only redeemable quality proved the possibility of an insane behind-the-scenes adventure.
And there was one. Wiseau’s friend and The Room‘s second leading man Greg Sestero documented it with Tom Bissell in their book The Disaster Artist. Franco would ultimately option this legendary saga of an enigmatic weirdo forking over approximately six million dollars to shoot and promote a work of unfathomable gibberish, allowing Wiseau the man to replace the caricature Johnny we saw him as. This meant Franco needed to find the layers behind that stiff walk, monotone Eastern European accent, and robotic laugh. He would have to find the vulnerability all but absent onscreen in a role that yearned for an emotional depth Wiseau could never even dream to approach. So when you laugh at James being eccentric in the trailer, know his performance isn’t meant to mock.
On the contrary—while everyone else mocks Tommy, James embodies his dreamer’s tortured soul devoid of the tools necessary to follow in the footsteps of those he admires. All Wiseau had at his disposal were industry rumors and hearsay that may or may not have provided blueprints for success. So Wiseau proves an endearing villain, a product of his flaws and abandonment issues rather than misunderstood genius with anything to say on behalf of cinematic craft. He’s an opportunist who had the means to stage an elaborate production with just enough intrigue to pull collaborators in with their own hunger for fame. Wiseau isn’t malicious as much as over-zealous. He’s an unfortunate soul willing to touch the sun who’s eventually revealed as the luckiest bastard on Earth upon returning unburned.
Despite Franco’s performative magic in portraying this figure with heart and sympathy, however, the story as adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber does find itself somewhat repetitive. This notion of Wiseau taking young Greg (Dave Franco) under his wing is hilariously absurd and everyone around them knows it and throws it in their faces. But since the former is delusional and the latter naïve, they continue moving forward regardless. They decide to follow their insane dream of becoming movie stars with hopeful innocence until Greg finally reaches the point where he can no longer excuse Tommy’s erratic and sometimes hurtful behavior. As a result the whole can feel a bit one-note with Wiseau constantly fulfilling the role of punch line whether welcomingly, obliviously, or painfully.
So some stretches of the film can drag either because we’ve hit a wall as far as how much empathy we can feel or Wiseau’s become too destructive to not begin turning on him completely. Luckily for Franco, this boom or bust reaction is perfectly suited to the laughs I couldn’t muster while viewing The Room. This is why I say The Disaster Artist confirmed what I already knew about myself. James, Dave, and Ari Graynor (Juliette Danielle) reenact scenes with expert precision and yet always maintain a smile in their eyes. Rather than play these moments with the extreme earnestness of the actors they are channeling, these three embrace a tongue-in-cheek tone that allowed me to feel as so many others have the past fourteen years.
James Franco opens a door. He’s created a movie that craves the reaction Wiseau never wanted but received anyway. The Disaster Artist is a lightning rod putting that electricity to constructive use unironically. Yes it shows how Tommy and Greg met. It gives context to The Room‘s strange inconsistencies and credence to the assumption that Wiseau’s set must have been completely unhinged and unprofessional (Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer highlight this revelation). And it shows how the inevitable pain of Tommy experiencing his failure could ever evolve so quickly into joy that people liked for whatever purpose they chose. It supplies all these crucial steps to serve as an origin story for The Room and yet ultimately ends up being the origin of its legacy beyond the screen.
I say this because The Room has transcended itself considering its days as a movie were over halfway through its premiere screening. It became a unique experiential phenomenon that rendered its own merit moot instead. Credit Franco for deciding to show this reality rather than merely lambasting its originator without nuance. This endeavor could have easily devolved into farce with little to no respect for any of the real people audiences laugh at with impunity and yet it conversely reveals them as the compassionate, ambitious, and self-effacing artists they are for rolling with the punches and leaning into the infamy. I still don’t see Wiseau as anything but a charlatan willing to do whatever is necessary to be adored, but I no longer blame him. He achieved it.
Rating: R | Runtime: 103 minutes | Release Date: December 1st, 2017 (USA)
Director(s): James Franco
Writer(s): Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber / Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
(book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made)