The Disaster Artist

December 2, 2017
Oh, Hi Mark.
Oh, Hi Mark.

Tommy Wiseau was not your standard Hollywood male lead. With long black hair, an accent that sounded like Count Dracula, and about six studded belts, he looked like an aging refugee from a heavy metal band. In his mind, however, Tommy was right up there with Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio. He was horrified to be told at one casting call that he had “a malevolent presence”, and would be perfect to play villains.

Fortunately for Tommy he had resources that most would-be stars could only dream about. Frustrated by so many knock backs he decided to make his own movie in which he would be writer, producer and director, and play the lead role of Johnny. That movie, The Room, allegedly cost US$6 million to make, and grossed $1,800 on first release. The initial season lasted two weeks only because Wiseau paid to keep it going. He would spend $5,000 a week for the next five years to maintain a billboard advertising the film.

Weirdly, it’s an investment that has paid off. Since its debut in June 2003 The Room has become a bona fide cult classic that draws a crowd wherever it’s screened. It has travelled the world with the filmmaker in attendance. Audiences dress up as the characters, throw plastic spoons, and recite dialogue out loud. I know it sounds ghastly. If you want to watch the movie without all the cultish behaviour there’s always YouTube.

Anybody can make a mediocre movie but to make a truly bad one requires some sort of artist. The Disaster Artist brings us the tale of a film-maker whose magnum opus was so bad it has carved out a niche in screen history. The script draws on a memoir co-written by Greg Sestero, who plays Johnny’s faithless friend, Mark, in The Room. In real life, Sestero (played here by Dave Franco) seems to have been Wiseau’s only real friend. His abiding strangeness alienated everyone, but Sestero hung in there.

The Disaster Artist almost manages to explain why, and almost turns Wiseau into a sympathetic character. We sample the frustrations of trying make it as an unknown actor in Hollywood and recognise that Wiseau has some kind of good heart beneath the bizarre exterior. Ultimately this is not enough to overcome the creepiness of his relationship with Sestero, which feels like an old lecher grooming a young naïf. Although he falls naturally into the role of mentor, Wiseau lives almost entirely within his own fantasy world.

It’s peculiarly appropriate that James Franco should be director of The Disaster Artist, and play the role of Tommy Wiseau. Franco has been involved with so many trashy, trivial projects he can probably identify with the mastermind behind The Room. One significant difference is that Wiseau thought he was making a dramatic masterpiece, whereas Franco is addicted to low-brow, infantile comedy.

Perhaps it takes real trash to bring out the best in Franco, because The Disaster Artist is compulsive viewing. In Ed Wood (1994) Tim Burton showed it was possible to make an excellent film about a terrible director. Franco has repeated the dose, giving us a portrait of the eccentric Wiseau that never flags for a second. If The Room was funny in an unintentional way, The Disaster Artist is a relentlessly deadpan comedy that keeps us on the edge of our seats in anticipation of our hero’s next inexplicable move.

Franco is so good in this role he’s already been mentioned as an Oscar candidate, which would be an exquisite irony, considering he’s playing a director who may have made the worst movie of all time.

Tolstoy wrote that “all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way,” and one could say something similar about bad movies. I’ve always been fascinated by directors such as Ed Wood and Jesus (not James) Franco, who combined low budgets and high melodrama to make films that stagger the imagination. Who could ignore the lilting sound of the Farfisa organ when danger looms, or the lime green shag pile carpet that dominates the dramatic scenes?

Wiseau’s idiosyncrasies are of a different order. The Room is ostensibly a story of an amiable banker named Johnny, who just happens to look like a heavy metal fiend. In this cruel world he is systematically betrayed by everyone, including his adored girlfriend, Lisa, and his best friend, Mark. It’s hard not to imagine an autobiographical dimension.

This tragic sequence of events doesn’t preclude politeness or spoil Johnny’s good humour. Every time someone enters a scene, Johnny or another character says “Hi”. No matter how grim the speech Johnny always manages to let out a little chortle before or after he says his lines. “Heh, heh”. The Disaster Artist shows how the crew gradually give up trying to change Wiseau’s script or his acting style. After all, he was paying their salaries.

To this day we still don’t know where Wiseau came from (he says “new Orleans”, others say “Transylvania”); his age (he says, “same as Greg”, others say “in his 60s”); or where he got his money (various theories exist). He is a man of mystery who craves the spotlight, and The Disaster Artist has shored up his claims to immortality.

The Disaster Artist
Directed by James Franco
Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, after a memoir by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
Starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogan, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron
USA, rated M, 103 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 December, 2017