- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
In 2003, a movie called “The Room” appeared seemingly out of nowhere. It emanated from no studio and contained no stars.
It was promoted only via a massive Hollywood billboard that featured a photo of the film’s writer, director, financier and star, a mysterious man named Tommy Wiseau who sported dyed black hair and a European accent. The Los Angeles theaters in which it played seemed to be rented by Wiseau himself.
Those who were at the initial screening (and many subsequent ones) said the film was bad almost beyond logic.
The story (such as it was) — of a man who becomes jealous of his cheating fiancee — didn’t track. The editing didn’t match. The plot was self-contradictory. The tone was baffling, the misogyny was flagrant, and the acting was, um, let’s call it limited.
It is — by every conventional measure — a screamingly inept movie that may or may not have cost Wiseau about $6 million of his own money to make. The film played for about two weeks before being pulled.
And then something interesting happened: Hard-core movie nerds started watching “The Room.” Nobody could call it good, but nobody could really deny there was something hypnotic about it. “The Room” doesn’t feel like camp, in the classic definition, although one responds to it the way one might respond to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Showgirls.”
No, “The Room” feel like a piece of true outsider art, which is to say there is no moment in the film where you feel Wiseau is burdened by self-consciousness. Like, ever.
In the 14 years since its release, “The Room” has attained serious cult status. Wiseau himself remains a mysterious figure.
The movie’s genesis, production and reception were chronicled in book called “The Disaster Artist” written by Greg Sestero, who is Wiseau’s friend, artistic collaborator and co-star.
And it is this book that has been adapted into a film written, directed by and starring James Franco, who goes to the greatest of lengths to look and sound like Wiseau. (Stay during the credits when Franco shows you how he shot-for-shot re-created “The Room.”)
The interesting thing is that this isn’t Wiseau’s story; it’s Sestero’s. Played by a never-better Dave Franco, Sestero is a shy 19-year-old taking acting classes in 1998 San Francisco when he meets fellow aspiring thespian Wiseau.
Seemingly unaware how over-the-top he is, Wiseau (who insists he is in his 20s and is a New Orleans native, when he is clearly much older and a native of … Poland, maybe?) earns the derision of all his classmates save for Sestero, who recognizes that Wiseau may be a lousy actor, but he’s not boring, an affliction Sestero can’t quite escape.
Soon the two are making plans to go to Hollywood and seek their fortunes, a move made possible by the fact that Wiseau seems to own an L.A. apartment he just isn’t using, a sign of the older man’s seemingly bottomless checking account.
But fame, or even acting work, is ever distant, the nadir coming when Wiseau spots Judd Apatow in a restaurant and soliloquizes “To be or not to be” at him before being ejected from the premises with extreme prejudice.
Then, like many a rejected artist before him, Wiseau decides to do it himself, buying incredibly expensive camera equipment, recruiting a lead actress (played by the always-wonderful Ari Graynor) and a script supervisor who seems to do a lot of directing (Seth Rogan) and generally staffing up the most expensive vanity project since Ross Perot ran for office.
Considering that the guy at the top of the food chain doesn’t appear to have any idea what he is doing, the shoot seems to go decently, if way over schedule. Indeed, it’s one of the best arguments you will ever see that, in the hands of even a handful of Hollywood professionals, anything can get completed eventually.
Franco portrays Wiseau as an American archetype, the man convinced that because he can do s0mething, he should do that thing. We never do find out where the cash is coming from, or for that matter his real age. There is zero evidence that Wiseau has any conventional talent, taste or basic understanding of human anatomy (see also the really weird sex scene). But he has passion and cash, and sometimes that is all it takes.
But like all biopics of deeply charismatic people, Franco can only get so close to the real McCoy, as revealed by the see-how-we-made-this-shot-for-shot clips at the end.
His team did a terrific job with the re-creation, and “The Disaster Artist” is a fun look at Hollywood dreams at their woolliest. But as your eyes drift over to the clips of the original film, as you look into Wiseau’s somewhat haggard face, as you notice the weirdness of the sets and the flatness of the performances, one is possessed by a singular thought: How can I see the original?