December is a big month for film. Studios and directors typically reserve December as a prime time to release films that they believe will be strong contenders for the biggest industry awards. Much of this is due to the fact that they have eligibility requirements to meet, but also to keep films fresh in the minds of audiences and award committee representatives since many of these ceremonies are conducted in the first quarter of the year. While culturally significant and critically-acclaimed films are released throughout the entire calendar year, the heavyweights usually follow this pattern.
Oftentimes, the big contenders released at the end of year are predominantly backed by major studios, have big name directors attached to them, or are serious dramas. However, award shows always sneak in at least one dark horse release that has a strong chance of subverting the expected favorites and possibly winning the most coveted prizes. That dark horse this year could be The Disaster Artist.
The latest directorial effort by James Franco, The Disaster Artist is a passion project of Franco’s, and fellow producers Seth Rogen’s and Evan Goldberg’s, that pays homage to one of their favorite films The Room. The Room, directed by Tommy Wiseau and released in 2003, is often regarded as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” Originally released in one theater and whose distribution was completely funded by its director, The Room initially only grossed $1,800 despite having a budget that exceeded $6 million.
However, since its release, the film has become a cult classic and generated a profit. Midnight screenings around the world are held with Wiseau attending some throughout the year. Much in the spirit of Rocky Horror Picture Show, seeing The Room in a theatre is an interactive experience as audiences will yell and throw objects (like spoons) at the screen. What has been considered to be one of the worst films ever made has since become a global and cultural phenomenon that continues to amaze and bewilder audiences. And the film’s inspiration could land Franco and company a Golden Globe or Academy Award.
For those unfamiliar with The Room, here is the breakdown. Wiseau stars, produces, writes, and acts in his masterpiece where he plays Johnny, an all-American guy, who is soon to be wed to his beautiful fiancé Lisa. Lisa, however, has been cheating on Johnny with Johnny’s best friend Mark. Johnny ignores warnings from friends and signs of Lisa’s infidelity believing that he has an idyllic American life to be shared with Lisa. The love triangle comes to a dramatic conclusion when Johnny, crushed by Lisa’s betrayal, chooses to end his own life.
The plot to Wiseau’s film is basic, but it is his tribute to great American cinema and the emotional performances from the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando. While there is a limitless number of melodramatic bombs that have circulated around Hollywood, The Room has surpassed them all. Personally, this can be attributed to the man that is Tommy Wiseau.
Tommy Wiseau is a mysterious figure who had befriended Greg Sestero, the actor who played Mark, in an acting workshop. Sestero documents this in his book on the making of The Room entitled The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. In this book, Sestero recounts his strange interactions with Wiseau both on and off set. To anyone who met Wiseau, it was clear that he was not the all-American hero he projected himself as. Wiseau was older and from a country of indeterminate origin, but still tried to convince people he was young and from New Orleans. To this day, it hasn’t been confirmed how old Wiseau is or where he is from though it is speculated he is in his 50s and from Poland.
While making The Room, it became clear to the cast and crew that they were working on an ego-trip of a movie that would never be seen. Wiseau clearly didn’t know how to make a movie and ignored basic filmmaking principles. The performances are wooden, plot holes are rampant throughout, characters are never seen again, and the writing is stilted. This was objectively a bad film that was not meant to be a success.
However, it has become a huge success due to Tommy Wiseau’s drive, creepy image, and bizarre performance. His odd non-sequiturs, random emotional outbursts, and bewildering dialogue are unintentionally funny. Wiseau’s intended drama became an accidental commentary that can be interpreted as being so meta that one could argue a brilliant film was made born from Dadaist tradition.
The Room and what transpired has become legend with top-tier actors and directors claiming that they would’ve loved to have been on the set to witness the performance art that was the making of The Room. Sestero capitalized on this with his book which became the basis for Franco’s film adaptation.
I saw the Disaster Artist last night at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Upon seeing the initial trailer over the summer, I knew I had to see this movie. Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen or read the source material yet. I knew The Room existed, but I avoided it. While I really love bad cinema, this movie didn’t appeal to me because of the cult following. I knew I could’ve gone to any of the midnight screenings that are held every other month in Chicago, but it didn’t appeal to me. If a bad movie has a reputation in its own right without fanfare, I’ll see it. But with costumes and interactive participation, it becomes less about the film. It is almost as if the film is background noise which is not how I want to experience a movie.
I knew I would have to buckle down and experience everything about The Room to mentally prepare myself for The Disaster Artist. Within a few weeks, I had seen the original film, participated in a midnight screening, and read Sestero’s book. The movie was bad, it wasn’t the worst movie ever made as suggested. It isn’t even the best worst movie ever made. I’m glad I watched it and I found it laughable and entertaining, but I was skeptical about the hyperbolic assessments I had hear about the film. The midnight screening was fun. I’ve participated in interactive screenings for Rocky Horror Picture Show many times. I’m glad this wasn’t the first time I had seen the film because I couldn’t hear anything over the laughter and screaming that made Rocky Horror seem tame by audience standards.
Finally, I read the book which I loved. It conveyed the tension, anger, and frustration felt on the set rather well. Like others, it made me wish I was on set just for the experience. Alas, hindsight is 20/20. But, the book stands out rather well on its own even if you’ve never seen the film.
With all that prep work finished, I was ready for The Disaster Artist. And I really enjoyed it. I don’t consider it the best film of the year, but it deserves the same company as the other films that deserve that moniker. Some scenes stood out as unnecessary while pertinent details from the book were left ignored. However, the way the narrative was crafted and the inclusion of various reference and in-jokes really show that this was a labor of love by true fans of Wiseau’s masterpiece.
The most uncomfortable scenes in the movie are the soft-core sex scenes. And it was clear both in Sestero’s book and Franco’s film that these scenes were among the arduous to film because of Wiseau’s ability alienate and disturb cast, crew, and audiences. There are four full-on sex scenes (and one oral sex scene) in the film. They are at a length that would be more appropriate for a skin flick on HBO or Cinemax. Wiseau would also be nude, show his ass multiple times on camera, and perform simulated intercourse that in no way resembled the actual method of love-making.
Again, it cannot be stressed enough that these scenes feel like soft-core pornography. If the length, nudity, and soft focus didn’t convince you, then the music will. R&B slow jams play during these scenes and sound like fair-use music that radio stations receive on sampler compilations (my college radio station received many CDs like this with all sorts of genres with each one sounding hacky and more appropriate for low-budget films or corporate training videos). The tracks are performed by Clint Gamboa, Jarah Gibson, and Bell Johnson. However, it is Kitra Williams’ “You’re My Rose” that stands out.
“You’re My Rose” is the best of the slow jams that appears in The Room. It is remarkably cheesy with its repetitive, saccharine lyrics, it appears twice in the film with the reprise playing of the ending credits, and Williams is credited as being the co-producer for The Room’s official soundtrack. Though Mladen Milićević’s, Loyola Marymount University music professor, original score is wonderfully tacky in its own right, it is Williams’ contribution that truly elevates the comedic factor of the music within the context of the film. Other than contributing vocals to a René Moore’s 1988 LP Destination Love, Williams’ only musical project is this song. Her contribution to Wiseau’s masterpiece is her legacy.
The film adaptation’s hype is driven primarily by “look how weird Wiseau is and how bad his movie is.” I guess as it should be. I’ve seen other films or documentaries about the making of classic films, but hardly of them focus on one particular individual. The Disaster Artist stands out on its own. However, despite the forced references and call backs, the film is worthy of buzz. I anticipate the film will be nominated for awards for best adapted screenplay and best actor for James Franco. I’m still processing the film. And while it hasn’t secured a spot as my pick for best film of the year, it’s among the top. There is considerable irony that Wiseau, once ridiculed and mocked, is getting the attention of Hollywood’s elite. Only in America!