(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. Again, I preordered this bad boy well before I knew I'd be writing about it for anyone other than myself and GR.)
Read: 11 to 19 October 2013
4 / 5 stars
In the long-running tradition of so-bad-it's-good entertainment, 2003's The Room is a fairly recent but impressively groan-worthy addition. Its low-budget approach to visual effects, a script held together by non sequiturs and the wealth of glaring continuity errors make it either instantly derided or ironically charming, depending on the viewer's stomach for shoddy craftsmanship and clueless defiance of cinematic etiquette.
For the enviably/unfortunately uninitiated, The Room is yet another take on the love-triangle template, offering up one more tale of a fellow whose quietly mundane existence will be predictably turned upside down by the barely concealed affair between his fiancée and best friend, the latter played by Greg Sestero, who also served as the flick's line producer. What sets The Room apart is its enthusiastic departure from the conventions that make a movie watchable. The acting is uneven, as even the more talented cast members could only do so much with the ridiculous script and inept director. Dramatis personae inexplicably come and go with all the finesse of a drunken hippopotamus, and they cling to and then disregard their motives with similarly contrary abandon. The dialogue is wooden at best and hilariously incoherent at worst. Plot lines are introduced, run with and cast off without resolution. In short, this is the very stuff that cult followings are made to immortalize, and the audience participation that screenings both public and private invite help to reshape this train wreck into sublime chaos.
While this book heralds itself as being Sestero's life inside The Room, The Disaster Artist reads more as Sestero's attempt to make sense of both writer/producer/director/lead actor Tommy Wiseau, depicted as an independently wealthy manchild who houses more insecurities than does a comprehensive guide to mental maladies, and his self-funded, self-promoted and self-delusional labor of love. Sestero, with enough writing assistance from journalist Tom Bissell to warrant a co-authorship, explores the torturous trajectory of The Room from nascence to its opening night, as well as the strained but symbiotic friendship between Wiseau and Sestero. Sestero's own faltering forays into Hollywood are chronicled as a sort of apologetic explanation for why he stuck with a project he clearly expected to fizzle into obscurity and stuck by a man who gave him both a place to live and an opportunity for work in exchange for the mind-bogglingly creepy way that Wiseau leeched off Sestero--the more successful actor and infinitely more attractive and youthful of the two--as if Sestero's good looks and acting chops were things he could possess for himself via sheer proximity.
Much of the book is devoted to recounting Wiseau's especially memorable bouts of weirdness, jealousies and general inability to function as an adult: Goading Sestero into nearly abandoning him just to prove that he has the power to offend; producing a demo reel fashioned nearly blow-for-blow from a scene in one of Sestero's other movies; spectacularly failing to remember the very lines he wrote; subjecting the whole of The Room's creative team to his unnecessary and gratuitously filmed nudity; spending extravagantly on the film when he feels it's in the best interest of his vision but skimping on paychecks and other details he arbitrarily dismisses as minor.
To me, if not for a friend's firsthand assurance that Sestero is a genuinely likable guy who regards his accidental ascent to pseudo-fame with equal parts wry humor and gratitude, the book's tone--that of a young actor desperate to make it in L.A., whose naivete, curiosity and willingness to look beyond his vampiric guardian angel's downright hostile quirks all work together to cement an uneasy friendship that barely survives a disastrous attempt at living together--would be off-puttingly glib. Wiseau is painted as the perennial (though unintentional) sad clown who would be a tragic figure if not for his nigh unflappable hubris. But Sestero does, to his credit, try to soften his description of a man who has clearly suffered some obsessively guarded psychological setback that has seemingly forever grounded him in the defensive, combative mindset of a newly minted teenager. An example: All attempts to inject a hint of unscripted coherence in Wiseau's film are met with such disproportionate resistance and unfounded accusations that it's unsurprising the film went through several incarnations of its cast and crew; Sestero attempts to explain that, to the best of his understanding, Wiseau sees all attempts at changing his project for the better as mutinous trespasses, a threat to the tenuous authority he has purchased with his self-propelled picture. Even in the instances where Sestero seems inexplicably passive in his inability to assume control when Wiseau has lost all touch with reality, there is a strong undercurrent of desperately gleaned sympathy that keep his remembered interactions buoyantly surreal rather than needlessly cruel.
Still, the bulk of the book's humor is at Wiseau's expense, as it is impossible to read about his diva-sized antics, tantrums, paranoia and obstinate refusal to divulge personal details without cackling the nervous guffaws of tension-eroding disbelief because Wiseau's fiery outbursts are in no way proportional to their triggers. The Sunset Boulevard and Talented Mr. Ripley quotes that begin each chapter and, later, the copious nods to both films just may be the most perfect encapsulation of Wiseau within these pages. This is a man who is painted as sleepwalking through life, who literally cannot help how bizarre he is, who rewrites his own personal history as he sees beneficial.
The lingering effects of The Disaster Artist are an increased sense of respect for the hapless players at the mercy of Wiseau's deranged puppet master as well as a nagging suspicion that $6 million can't quite buy talent but it sure can stack the odds in one's favor if one is hellbent on crafting a blockbuster from incoherence and birthing a star from a woeful dearth of thespian proficiency, reality be damned.