Friday, December 1, 2017

The Good, The Bad, And 'The Disaster Artist'

A triumphant disaster

I first became aware of the phenomenon that is The Room by reading about it in Entertainment Weekly. Shortly after, Adult Swim aired it for one time only during their late night programming. That was the first time I watched it. It was edited for content, and ironically, that editing actually made it a better movie; there's only so much of director/writer/star Tommy Wiseau's bare ass one should be subjected to before it becomes cruel and unusual punishment.

Watching The Room is like watching a film created by an alien who is desperately trying to mimic human emotions and interactions. It's actually kind of an accomplishment for an actor to deliver every bit of his dialogue badly, but somehow, Wiseau manages it. That he can turn something as simple as "Oh, hi Mark" into a memorable line borders on amazing.

The closest I ever came to a communal viewing was watching the DVD while listening to its RiffTrax (recommended!), but maybe one day I'll actually check out a midnight showing (it still plays regularly in San Francisco) because watching The Room alone is something that shouldn't really happen more than once, and seeing it again is a hard urge to resist after watching The Disaster Artist, James Franco's ode to the legendary cinematic disaster.

Based on the book of the same name, written by actor and The Room costar Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), The Disaster Artist opens in the late 1990s "San Francisco," (like The Room, it is set in SF, but not actually filmed here), with a meet cute between Greg and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in an acting class. Greg has just finished a terrible scene reading, and Tommy volunteers to go next. He chooses the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, and proceeds to chew the scenery, almost literally. He wails. He flails. He starts to climb the rafters. Greg, who has just been criticized for being emotionless, is enraptured. Maybe he can learn something from this nut!

While James Franco will always be better looking than the real Tommy Wiseau, even with the fake nose and wig he dons, he does manage to capture Wiseau's other-worldly essence; that accent that can't be placed (Tommy insists he's from Louisiana); line delivery that makes it sound like he's perpetually stoned or bored, even when he's screaming; and the feeling that he's only ever half listening to anything anyone says to him.

Tommy and Greg become fast friends and decide to move to Los Angeles to pursue their acting dreams. That Tommy has apartments in both San Francisco and Los Angeles doesn't go unnoticed by Greg, nor his white BMW. But where Tommy gets his money remains as mysterious as his origins.

Once the inevitable happens, with them both failing to land any substantial gigs, that mysterious money proves to be a potential savior when Tommy decides to make his own movie. He pounds out a script on a typewriter, insists Greg take the supporting role (the lead is Tommy's, of course), and then purchases all the equipment needed to film the movie, instead of renting it. Oh, and he also decides to shoot it on both video AND film.

Up to this point, The Disaster Artist is a pretty standard "Hollywood hopefuls" story, albeit one with a character who says he's from Louisiana, sounds like he's from Poland, but might actually be from another world. But once it gets into the actual filming of the movie within the movie, it gives the majority of the audience what they've been waiting for: a glimpse into just how something like The Room came to be.

The cast that makes up the film's crew is filled with comedians and Judd Apatow alums, including Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, and Hannibal Buress, and most of the scenes centered around the filming are very funny. But we also get a glimpse into what a nightmare The Room must have been to work on, with Tommy refusing his actors water, insisting on walking around the set naked while shooting the love scenes, and a shooting schedule ("Day 52 of 40") that drags on and on.

You can't make a "good" bad movie on purpose. The best bad movies had every intention of being good movies from the start. But at this point, I don't even know if The Room really is a "good" bad movie. Parts of it are unbearably boring, and I could barely make it through the sex scenes once, let alone the multiple times the movie's biggest fans are able to stomach. Unlike the grassroots emergence of the cult following that followed a film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room's cult success owes a lot to word of mouth from Hollywood insiders, those who stumbled upon it because of the enigmatic billboard that set up to advertise it, and the continuing existence of Tommy Wiseau himself, who, once he saw how crowds were responding to his movie, began to hype it as a black comedy. (Be sure to stay till after the credits for Wiseau's cameo.)

And I wonder if James Franco was drawn to the story because he felt some affinity to Tommy Wiseau. While Franco has now directed eighteen movies (18!!), he has never received the accolades I bet he feels he deserves. After that many flops, I can certainly imagine a director emerging from a screening of The Room filled with the fear that he's been making the same kind of movie this whole time. Maybe it just took a terrible movie to finally inspire James Franco to direct a good one.

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