We May Never Know the Truth Behind Tommy Wiseau and 'The Room'
'The Disaster Artist' exists somewhere between a few separately told truths. Is that a good thing?
By virtue of what it is, The Disaster Artist is difficult to parse. It’s a movie based on a book about a movie, and each level of that matryoshka doll comes with its own set of questions as to authorial intent—both in terms of how we are meant to feel as an audience, and how much we can or cannot accept from an artist for the sake of art.
Since its premiere in 2003, The Room has become a beloved cult movie and a perpetual object of ridicule. It became such a phenomenon that one of its stars, Greg Sestero, co-wrote The Disaster Artist, a book detailing his experience making the movie as well as his friendship with Tommy Wiseau, the director, writer, producer, and star of the film. The anecdotes contained within range from predictably odd to slightly harrowing, as the production of the movie takes a back seat to the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero. To give you an idea of just how strange things become, at one point Sestero compares Wiseau to the title character in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
As it’s portrayed in The Disaster Artist—which was adapted from Sestero’s book—the friendship between Sestero and Wiseau still has its ups and downs, but rather than taking the shape of a thriller, their story is a heartwarming comedy, and a tale of triumph. There is one end to which this works: The Disaster Artist has a distinct humanizing effect for Wiseau, who, like his movie, is a simultaneous object of cultural fascination and mockery.
Wiseau is a character, to be sure, but there’s still something slightly discomfiting about the cult of personality that’s sprung up around him. As a culture, we've finally recognized that “So where are you really from?” is a question that’s potentially offensive—a way of implying that anybody who isn’t white and doesn’t speak perfect English couldn’t possibly be American. So why do we still feel so comfortable asking the question when it's in reference to Tommy Wiseau?
It’s a question that goes hand in hand with examining the popular reaction to The Room, which is to ridicule it. There’s a certain humor in just how poorly made it is—but the fact that it’s widely thought to be somewhat autobiographical lends a similar surrealism to how ready we are to make fun of it. For the uninitiated, The Room tells the story of Johnny, played by Wiseau, whose professional ambitions are stymied and whose girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend. Ultimately, he commits suicide. This isn’t a plot that’s inherently comedic at all, and even though the midnight-movie tradition that’s sprung up around the movie isn’t malicious in intent, it’s strange being in a theatre full of people goading Johnny to kill himself.
James Franco, who directed The Disaster Artist and stars as Wiseau, doesn’t seem to intend for his portrayal to be a parody or a joke—but this will likely take a while to sink in for any audience trained to laugh at anything delivered in a Wiseau-ian accent. But, again, the movie is perhaps too kind in smoothing over the rough patches in Wiseau’s behavior in order to present a sweeter, more palatable story. There’s one scene in The Disaster Artist that allows the audience a glimpse of what the movie could have been if it had stuck more closely to Sestero’s book: As they’re shooting a sex scene, Franco-as-Wiseau berates the actress playing his girlfriend (Ari Graynor as Juliette Danielle), calling her “disgusting” when she strips down, all while being practically naked himself.
Sestero (Dave Franco) takes him aside, telling him that his behavior is unacceptable. Wiseau’s response is to say that Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock were terrors, too, citing Hitchcock’s use of live birds in a scene with Tippi Hedren in The Birds. There are, of course, two problems with this argument—or, rather, just one: It doesn’t matter whether or not The Room is great art, because even great art doesn't excuse such horrendous behavior.
But The Disaster Artist, practically a love letter to its subjects, doesn’t linger on that ugliness. The scene moves on, and that’s the last we have to wrestle with it. As such, the film rests on one end of the spectrum where The Room rests on the other, with the book The Disaster Artist landing squarely in the middle. They are the patron saint of misfits, the space oddity, and the man, respectively, and to take any one apart from the others undermines the entire enterprise. Wiseau has been famously coy in divulging any details of his life, but such is his right. Between two movies and a book, there’s a picture of something real in there, somewhere.