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Before 'The Disaster Artist,' There Was 'American Movie'

Two movies about bad movies that are also... great movies.
A24/Sony Pictures Classics

Despite its retelling of the making of the uniquely awful 2003 film The Room, James Franco’s The Disaster Artist has become critically revered upon release. His co-producer and longtime collaborator Seth Rogen summarized the phenomenon in a single tweet: “We made a movie about the worst movie and it might be our best movie.”

And The Disaster Artist's success resembles that of American Movie, Chris Smith's 1999 documentary focusing on a small town filmmaker and his excruciatingly amateurish short film Coven. American Movie was an instant hit with audiences and critics alike, winning the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at that year's Sundance Film Festival. While the two movies are miles apart in terms of scope and scale, the core concept is surprisingly similar. So what exactly is so appealing about watching a movie about bad movie?


The Disaster Artist finds Franco at his highest form as an actor, his portrayal of The Room director Tommy Wiseau as opaque as the aura of mystery that surrounds the bizarre filmmaker himself. The film is a masterful comedy that nails the art of restraint and ridiculousness with such precision that you’d mistake it for an absurd documentary, were it not for all the recognizable faces. American Movie's subject, Mark Borchardt, possesses a similar surrealist quality: he refuses to let a lack of budget or professional experience stop him from making the next great horror film. In a sleepy Midwestern suburb, Borchardt begs and borrows from his friends and family in trying to turn his dream into a reality.

At the center of each film are two oddly charmisic if not totally off-kilter protagonists, neither of whom what most moviegoers would consider conventional heroes. But Wiseau and Borchardt are both determined filmmakers with a true love for American cinema, bound by their aggressively ambitious and uncompromising personalities, as well as lanky, long-haired appearances and a shared passion for over-the-top and occasionally off-putting filmmaking.

There's a hint of the idiomatic “trainwreck” concept behind the appeal of The Disaster Artist and American Movie: the respective stories are so bizarre that you can’t look away, but the appeal runs deeper, too. It may be simultaneously cringe-inducing and entertaining to watch Borchardt yell at his mother for not framing a shot to his liking, or to see Wiseau freak out when he feels slighted by his crew, but both Franco and Smith build up an enormous amount of empathy for their leads. It doesn’t matter how ill-conceived their dreams are, or how hawkish they can be around others—you still find yourself rooting for these oddball characters.

There's also an underdog element to both The Disaster Artist and American Movie that everyone can relate to. The protagonists feel misunderstood by the world that surrounds them, which isn't an uncommon feeling. You can potentially relate to their feelings of desire, isolation, and desperation, and perhaps there's something comforting about seeing those emotions earnestly depicted in film. Wiseau and Borchardt's dedication to their art, as well as their idiosyncratic personalities and lack of self-awareness, makes for two compelling and comedic stories about one's own hopes and dreams.

Wiseau and Borchardt seem to represent the weirdest and most wide-eyed parts that exist in us all. Their unabashed pursuit feels oddly relatable, and that their stories are set on the backdrop of the making of a movie quickly becomes an afterthought. In both The Disaster Artist and American Movie, despite the ill-advised endeavors that the characters are pursuing, you still find yourself hoping for a happy ending. Both movies delight in the charm of eccentric artists and the spectacle of bad filmmaking—which, oddly enough, make for two pretty great movies.