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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

The Disaster Artist movie review: a view on ‘The Room’

The Disaster Artist green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A hilarious ode to talentless passion. James Franco gives the bizarre Tommy Wiseau depth without solving his mystery, but skips a deserved zing at Hollywood.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I don’t think you need to have seen the 2003 cult film The Room to appreciate The Disaster Artist, director and star James Franco’s hilarious ode to the talentless passion that birthed it. But I was glad that I had finally seen it for the first time just before I attended a screening of Artist. Because I’m not sure that I would have believed Artist’s depiction of the astonishing awfulness of The Room — Franco reproduces essential scenes from the film in all their crummy glory — if I hadn’t already witnessed the horror for myself.

I’m not sure that I would have believed The Disaster Artist’s depiction of the astonishing awfulness of The Room if I hadn’t witnessed the horror for myself.
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The Room is almost indescribable in its terribleness… and as a writer, I abhor using the word indescribable. It’s my job, after all, to find the necessary words to describe things. But The Room is so far removed from any appreciation of how stories are told, how movies are put together, and how human people behave that, well, I could feel my mind actually boggling as I watched it. I imagine that a literally boggled mind is like curdled milk: The Room has caused my gray matter to thicken and go sour; the movie is funny in its ineptness but also enraging in the privilege its very existence represents, as the product of a wealthy white man who used it as a platform for his entitled narcissistic grievances (more on this in a bit). This is one of those movies whose cult following now includes regular public screenings (see its web site for the full list; in London it has a regular engagement in apparent perpetuity at The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square) for which “fans” dress up as the characters and yell the lines back at the screen; it’s like what has become of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, except there was never anything intentionally camp or ironic about The Room. You don’t need a boisterous crowd, though, to participate in the dreadfulness. As I sat alone in my little room watching The Room on DVD (it’s available from Amazon US, and as an import from Amazon UK), I couldn’t possibly have stopped myself from yelling imprecations at the TV, and I didn’t even try. There are things that happen onscreen in The Room that prompted involuntary reactions of “What the hell?”, “What the fuck?!”, “Who the flaming heck are you, seemingly important character who has suddenly appeared out of nowhere?”, and many other exclamations of befuddlement and bafflement. (Oh, and even the film’s title — The Room — is a conundrum. It’s impossible to guess what it might refer to.)

“Good movie, bad movie, who cares as long as it makes us famous.”

“Good movie, bad movie, who cares as long as it makes us famous.”

James Franco (along with his brother Dave, who also appears in the film) introduced the screening of The Disaster Artist that I attended, and he passed on one theory as to how The Room came to be: Evidently it is rumored that Room writer, director, producer, and star Tommy Wiseau is, in fact, an alien who came to Earth and, having heard about movies but never having seen one himself, decided he’d have a go at making one.

This is entirely plausible. As The Disaster Artist only underscores.

If Tommy Wiseau were not a real person — a real person who is by all reports at least as outlandish as he is depicted here, possibly much more so — we would never buy him as a character. Not even as portrayed by James Franco (The Vault, Alien: Covenant), a man who isn’t only dedicated to pushing envelopes and playing with meta but who takes clear joy in such: he once played a character on the daytime soap General Hospital who is a serial killer and an artist and who was called Franco. So. Franco’s Wiseau is one of the great performances of recent years, one that could easily have been nothing but cartoonish but one that Franco somehow gives depth without actually giving away any of his mystery. His Wiseau truly could be an alien, and not only because Wiseau is so damn bizarre, a man of unplaceable accent — this becomes a running joke in Artist — and even more mysteriously bottomless resources. He self-funds the multimillion-dollar production budget of The Room, a project he decides to create for himself when no one will give him an acting job, because he’s legitimately revolting as an actorly presence, impossibly clueless about the creepy vampiric vibe he gives off. (The utter lack of self-awareness that Franco emanates is marvelous, and in a few instances shocking.) This disconnect between how he sees himself — as romantic hero, both onscreen and off — and how he comes across to others is inherent to the humor and the horror of The Disaster Artist, and to understanding why The Room is so appalling.

Tommy Wiseau has been compared to Ed Wood. But I’m not sure that comparison is fair… to Ed Wood.
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Wiseau has been compared to Ed Wood, the legendarily inept filmmaker most infamous, perhaps, for Plan 9 from Outer Space, generally considered the worst movie ever made. But I’m not sure that comparison is fair. Wood had no talent, but he did have something to say, at least with some of his movies: his Glen or Glenda, for instance, offered a sympathetic (if thoroughly incompetent) depiction of a trans woman that was way ahead of its time. Wiseau, with The Room — the only movie he has made and one, Artist suggests, that is autobiographical — has nothing to say but “Woe is me!” The Room is an absurd tale rife with emotional falsity and contradictory human behavior that nevertheless casts Wiseau’s “Johnny” as a supposedly good man who is treated appallingly by a supposedly nasty woman. Every character in The Room is beyond a caricature, all so focused on either propping up Johnny as a saint or evilly knocking him down that even their own sometimes life-or-death concerns take a backseat to the depiction of Johnny as a man unfairly wronged.

“I get only my babes from DiscountArmCandy.com of course.”

“I get only my babes from DiscountArmCandy.com of course.”

The Room, then, is itself only an extreme caricature of a movie zeitgeist that is dominated by stories whose scales are tipped to portray white men as abused underdogs who triumph, or don’t, in spite of the “enormous” odds against them. I wish The Disaster Artist offered even a hint that it was aware of how little The Room actually deviates, thematically, from Hollywood’s SOP. The Room’s outrageousness is, in some ways, an accidental condemnation of Hollywood, in how it peels away the thin veneer supplied by, you know, technical competence and craft, to reveal the male insecurity and petulance at the core of far too much of what passes for studio entertainment. I wish The Disaster Artist recognized that Wiseau, who is now celebrated for and benefitting from his utter lack of talent, is perhaps the ultimate example of a white man failing upward. This lack may be because the movie is based on the book by Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s friend and the costar of The Room, about their experience with that film, and perhaps it’s too much to expect that he’d have the point of view to frame Wiseau that way. (Dave Franco [Now You See Me 2, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising] plays Sestero here.) Maybe it’s too much to have expected white-male screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who jointly wrote Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars) to see it. Maybe it’s even too much to have expected woke meta James Franco to see it. Perhaps we can only pity the limited perspective of white men, even on themselves.

This is more than a minor quibble, but I didn’t let it infect my enormous enjoyment of The Disaster Artist. I laughed, out loud, a lot at its depiction of an all-consuming passion that is blind to the incompetence behind it, and unaware of the irony with which it would be received. The Room was a real Springtime for Hitler offered in all seriousness, without the calculated snark of The Producers to counter it. The Disaster Artist now brings in that balance, a larger context that The Room was originally missing. This is the second half of the story, and if The Disaster Artist doesn’t make The Room suddenly make sense, it does give it at least an air of comprehensibility.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.



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