About 12 or 13 years ago, shortly before the deluge that transformed culture into content, I began to notice that everywhere I went, everyone I encountered seemed to be telling me I had to see The Room by Tommy Wiseau, if only to understand how hilariously terrible a work of art could be.
I can’t say why exactly, but something made me vow never to see it.
Maybe I detected a measure of vitriol in the way people talked about the film that seemed disproportional. It’s not like it was The Birth of a Nation or Jew Süss, was it? (Wait, was it?) No, it was just some hapless sucker’s foray into artistic failure, which is less funny when you’ve experienced it yourself.
But let’s be serious. It was probably because I was born a contrarian buzzkill, and when everyone thinks the same thing is funny—see also: “Really? Really?” b/w “I just threw up in my mouth a little bit”—it’s guaranteed to make me cringe.
Nevertheless, my obstinacy has paid off, because I’m probably the only one who can accurately report that The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s film about the making of Wiseau’s magnum opus, is worth your time even if you’ve never seen The Room.
Like its most obvious cinematic forbear, Tim Burton’s incandescent Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist is an argument that talent is a relative value, that friendship often takes unlikely and even unpleasant forms, and that all showbiz dreams can be boiled down to the same ignoble yearning: to be validated by the gaze of strangers.
It’s also a reminder that Franco is a smart and funny performer with perverse comedic instincts that pay off constantly. Armed with ludicrously long hair and a reasonable facsimile of Wiseau’s inscrutable accent (Mediterranean? Russian? Slavic? Italian? French? Basque?), he stumbles around the fringes of show business—acting classes, auditions, a chance encounter with Judd Apatow in a restaurant—either oblivious or indifferent to his flagrant unlikeliness.
The Room is born when Tommy meets Greg, a classically handsome suburban normal who also has no evident talent (played by the director’s brother, Dave Franco), and writes, directs, and finances the film for the two of them to star in when neither one can catch a break in Hollywood. Their friendship is born of mutual hopelessness, but it grows into something close to actual affection despite the enigma at the center of Tommy. Where does he get his limitless money? What the hell is he ever talking about? What exactly does he want from Greg?
The film never answers these questions, which raises a more important one: How do we reconcile our grudging sympathy for Tommy with the knowledge that he is personally unpleasant, artistically barren, and very likely shady as hell? (Three characteristics that can be attributed to people far more successful than Tommy Wiseau, one hastens to add.)
It’s doubtful such an irony motivated Franco to make the film. He probably just wanted to see whether he could carry off an entire feature with a figure as ludicrous as Wiseau at its center. That makes the humanity of The Disaster Artist feel all the less likely and all the more pleasing.