“The Disaster Artist” is a surprisingly poignant argument for art—even the worst of it
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I never thought I would ever feel bad for Tommy Wiseau, the inscrutable mind responsible for what many have deemed the worst movie ever made, The Room. I didn’t think I would ever admire Wiseau either, but here we are. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, a film about the ridiculous creation of The Room, has made me feel both these things.
You probably know the backstory: In 2003, a man known as Tommy Wiseau wrote, financed, directed, and starred in a film called The Room. Its script made no sense and was inundated with continuity errors. Its acting was stilted (to put it mildly). It was not “good” in any sense except for one—it made people laugh, albeit unintentionally. The film has since become a cult hit, played in sold-out theaters around the world to rapturous audiences who know every awful line of dialogue and sometimes come in costume, with props.
Almost 15 years later, actor-filmmaker James Franco’s latest movie is a dramatization of the making of Wiseau’s cult hit, based on the 2013 book The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero, an actor and friend of Wiseau’s who co-starred in The Room. In addition to directing, Franco stars in The Disaster Artist as Wiseau, mirroring the latter artist’s dual filmmaking role.
Yes, I said artist. The film’s thesis, conveyed in the title, is that the artist behind a terrible work of art is still an artist. Regardless of how it got here, the fact that The Room exists at all is a good thing, Franco’s film argues. That it makes people happy, however ironically, is even better.
“Art,” as an academic concept, is often discussed in haughty terms. Only the most intellectually profound and aesthetically sublime art is really “Art,” with a capital “A.” Everything else is just entertainment.
The Disaster Artist presents a much wider definition of the term. By the end of the film, when we see Wiseau’s The Room screened to an audience for the first time, it’s easy to accept Franco’s argument: A creative endeavor made by a human that seeks to make other humans feel something—anything—is indeed art. And there’s always value in the pursuit of that, no matter the end result, no matter what cynical people might say about the pursuer.
It’s not difficult to draw a parallel between Wiseau’s quest to make The Room and Franco’s own erratic career as a filmmaker and actor. His acting career has ranged from highbrow drama to goofball comedy to blockbuster. It even included a baffling stint playing a serial killer on the daytime soap opera General Hospital—after, not before, he became a big Hollywood star. “I’m very interested in the structure of soap operas,” he said at the time.
Always an underrated actor (if you haven’t seen 127 Hours, change that), Franco’s path as a director has been similarly ambitious but not as successful, filled with half-baked films about ideas he’s interested in but can’t quite communicate effectively to an audience (like his 2014 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God—a sincere attempt to film one of the great American writer’s most enigmatic works).
As a meta commentary on the misunderstood visionary, The Disaster Artist is a triumph. Yes, it’s another of Franco’s earnest forays, but this one works because it’s so deeply personal. Franco’s film gets at what motivates Wiseau: Whether we admit it or not, deep down, we just want people to like us. Creating art that people enjoy is one way to do that. For most of The Disaster Artist, Wiseau has absolutely no self-awareness. He behaves as if he’s the only person who exists. Some part of him knows that people think he’s a weirdo, but he brushes it off every time. They’re the weirdos. I’m the genius.
That narcissism gets him into a lot of trouble. The set of The Room is a disaster: Wiseau refuses to pay for air conditioning or water bottles for the cast and crew; he struggles to remember his own lines (that he wrote); and, for the most part, he treats his collaborators extremely poorly. When Sestero (played by Franco’s brother, actor Dave Franco) lands a small TV role on the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, Wiseau refuses to let him miss a day of filming, out of envy. However misunderstood or disregarded Wiseau has been his entire life, Franco doesn’t present him as an innocent. He’s manipulative and, at times, mean.
But by that rousing final scene, we realize that Wiseau’s vanity was a cover for major insecurity all along. Though he sometimes seems like he’s from another planet (in fact, he says as much in the film, handing Sestero a pen that literally says “Tommy’s Planet”), Wiseau is the most human character of all.
Ultimately, we realize, as objectively bad as The Room is, it was still a gigantic creative project that was completed. Wiseau wrote an entire screenplay, directed the film, and acted in it. He made an actual movie. How many people on Earth can say that?
When the audience begins laughing hysterically at The Room‘s ineptitude, Wiseau tears up and leaves the theater. Like the rest of us, he just wanted to get people to like him. The problem is he has no idea how.
About halfway through the premiere of The Room, the audience gets into the lunacy. They laugh, they clap, and when the curtain is drawn, they’re on their feet. Tommy returns, gets up on stage, and thanks the audience for watching his comedic movie, emphasizing that his intent, all along, was to make people laugh. It very clearly was not. But does that matter? He made something that people loved.
It’s not necessary to see The Room before you see The Disaster Artist, but it helps. At the very least, try to watch some clips on YouTube (video). In addition to knowing the in-jokes that Franco and company reference liberally, you’ll get a sense of Wiseau’s earnestness, his complete and total commitment to a vision that even he doesn’t really understand. You’ll see how easy it is to admire someone who has the courage to follow through on a dream and still embrace its result, even when it’s not remotely what was envisioned at the outset.
James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is very funny. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you’ll have a great time at the movie theater. But as you make your way home, you’ll realize that it’s not the film’s humor that’s still gnawing at you. It’s the realization that there is a Tommy Wiseau deep within all of us. (Apologies for that image.)