For what seemed like every weekend for the better part of a decade, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has screened at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. I saw it on three separate occasions and each subsequent screening seemed to grow on the prior’s mythology. So when do you throw the spoons? Can we really throw a football? And it wasn’t your usual dude-bro cadre of college-aged deplorables that you’d expect attending these screenings. No, I caught glimpses of the starchiest of academics, college professors, and former teachers during these midnight screenings. Why?
Let me put it this way: we like to feel good about ourselves. The Room makes us feel good because it provides us with a communal outlet to engage, ironically, with a piece of art. There’s pleasure in the kind of ridicule that we expend at The Room, from throwing plastic spoons at the screen to impromptu games of catch football that take place in the aisles of our theater. We feel good about these acts of ridicule because it suggests an acknowledgement of the film’s absurdity, and in that recognition we find ourselves in a moral/intellectual position of superiority. We just like to feel better than The Room. You know, the sort of “we’re laughing at you, not with you” sort of acknowledgement. Thing is that when we engage in these acts of condescension, we frequently forget the origins of what we’re poking fun at in the first place. It’s easy to forget that Tommy Wiseau’s film was intended as a piece of serious, personal filmmaking that we’ve – and subsequently, Wiseau himself –turned into a joke.
I was surprised to discover that James Franco’s The Disaster Artist acknowledges The Room as a product of Wiseau’s peculiar brand of anxieties. In adapting Greg Sestero’s biography on the making of The Room, Franco frames the tumultuous production of the film as a feckless attempt to remedy past failures and rejections. We first find Greg (Dave Franco) in an actor’s studio testing out material to a disinterested audience of peers. It’s terribly unimpressive and banal, which is the point: Greg is not a good actor. As the studio’s instructor asks for any more participants, it’s Tommy (James Franco) who provides an avant garde rendition of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s terribly unimpressive and weird, which is the point: Tommy is not a good actor. But what he lacks in grace he makes up for with passion, which immediately appeals to Greg.
And so we have our meet-cute, where Greg and Tommy befriend each other over their mutual interest in performance. They move to L.A. in pursuit of their dreams, even as Greg grows suspicious of his new friend (Tommy’s age and bottomless wealth are frequently addressed but never answered). It’s in this initial transition that The Disaster Artist finds its most intriguing dynamic, where Greg’s natural good looks propel him into a stratosphere of L.A chic culture that’s otherwise out of reach for Tommy. Greg gets a girlfriend and is auditioning for roles, while Tommy bitterly slaves away from one rejection to the next. It’s not until Tommy’s convinced to produce his own screenplay, a work of personal catharsis, that we enter into the film’s production.
Your mileage on these production sequences, filled with familiar actors like Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, and Jacki Weaver, will vary based on your temperament, but Franco struggles to extract anything especially interesting out of these moments. And as a comic enterprise, these moments may initially baffle before being repeated so thoroughly that they cease to be funny at all. Part of it comes from the unfortunate thinness of James Franco’s characterization. His performance is an impersonation, and while he’s adept at capturing the tenor, cadence, and maxillofacial qualities of Wiseau’s voice and features, it never extends beyond a superficial facsimile of the man. Dave Franco fares better, if only because his character is less tied to performance quirks, and instead embodies a kind of everyman insecurity that can become terribly heartfelt.
But The Disaster Artist is preoccupied with Wiseau and The Room’s production strictly as a shallow cultural object, which strikes me as a terribly obvious and frankly unnecessary route to go. Franco offers little to challenge his characters, and ultimately succumbs to blinding hagiography to propel his narrative. To be fair, he made this apparent in the first place, where he employs various actors and comedians in a talking head sequence to discuss their adoration for The Room. And the film concludes with a side-by-side comparison of The Room and The Disaster Artist, which will likely spur its audience to discuss how authentic Franco’s replication was. I don’t buy it. This is a hollow and condescending exercise that invites you to poke fun at something that was only fleetingly funny on an ironic level. Franco strips the irony of it all in what’s essentially a trivial vanity project.