In 2003, a small independent film called The Room premiered at the Laemmle Fairfax theater in LA. It would run for just two weeks (the minimum engagement required for a film to qualify for the Academy Awards), it got lousy reviews, and made almost no money. If not for a weird twist of fate, The Room might have left the Laemmle never to be seen again. But fate had other ideas. In its second week, a local comedian wandered in and was startled by what he saw: “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.” He told his friends. They told their friends. There were a hundred people at the final screening at the Laemmle. A year later, they’d convinced The Room‘s director, the mysterious Tommy Wiseau, to do some midnight screenings. And the rest is history.
But you know the old saying about history—it repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. And so it is with The Room. Tragedy because The Room is not a comedy. It’s very obviously a weird and deeply felt personal statement by a person who feels betrayed by the world, one that has been laughed at—often to the artist’s face—for more than a decade. Farce because, fourteen years after face-planting at the Laemmle, The Room is finally being discussed in the Oscars race… as the subject of a “dramedy” that intentionally mines comedy from The Room and its writer-director-producer and star, Wiseau.
The Disaster Artist could easily have been the final stake in Wiseau’s heart, a 90-minute dunking session where comedy greats like Seth Rogen tear The Room and Wiseau apart. But director James Franco and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are wise to ask the real question at the heart of The Room‘s enduring cult popularity: what are we really laughing at?
Because let’s be real—Tommy Wiseau is a strange dude. Nobody knows where he’s from, how old he is, or where he got the rumored $6 million it cost to make The Room. His clothes and hair are eccentric, to put it mildly. And Wiseau seems utterly uninterested in satisfying people’s curiosity or toning himself down. He seems perfectly comfortable with who he is. Just point a camera at Wiseau being Wiseau and laughter is inevitable because, as Franco-as-Wiseau says many times: “Sometimes people do crazy things. It human nature.” So when laughter greets The Room at its grand premier, it seems easy enough to believe our audience surrogate, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), Tommy’s friend and ally, when he says that Tommy should embrace joy even when it’s at his expense.
But it’s not that easy. Wiseau may have thick skin, but it’s still skin. At one point in The Disaster Artist, the cast of The Room are debating the extent to which the film is autobiographical. It’s easy to accept that the movie’s protagonist, “Johnny,” is Wiseau, and that his conventionally handsome friend-turned-antagonist, Mark, is Sestero. But is there a real Lisa out there, they wonder? Someone who broke Tommy’s heart and made him feel crazy and suicidal? Juliette Danielle (Ari Gaynor), the actress playing Lisa, thinks the answer is obvious: it’s the whole universe that hurt Tommy this way.
And it’s true. To this point in the film, we’ve seen Wiseau laughed at by a seemingly endless procession of acquaintances, classmates, teachers, agents, casting directors, and producers. Everyone is laughing at him all the time. At one acting class, a brutally honest teacher tells him he has a “malevolent presence,” and he should lean into villain roles. But for Tommy, that’s defeat. He’s not a villain, he’s a hero. This draws yet more laughter. Tommy, in a rare moment of (visible) vulnerability, fires back: “I hero, you all villain. Yeah, you laugh at the hero. That what villain do.” A fired-up Wiseau then storms off, makes The Room, casts himself as the hero, bares his soul, and wrestles his creation up onto the silver screen–something so few people will ever accomplish in life—and… he gets laughed at again.
So when Sestero follows a weeping Wiseau out into the lobby, as laughter greets his attempt at, so the tagline says, “A film with the passion of Tennessee Williams,” maybe his advice to embrace the laughter isn’t wise or helpful. In fact, coming from Sestero, a marginal talent who craves fame but doesn’t seem to have “it,” and who has built his whole career out of being Tommy’s “normal” friend, that advice seems downright… malevolent. The movie plays it straight, though: the music swells, Tommy storms the stage in victory, and talking heads and title cards wax lyrical about how incredible and unique an achievement The Room is. And yet it’s hard to shake Tommy at that acting class, wounded and angry: “You laugh at the hero. That what villain do.”
It’s tempting to chalk this apparent dissonance up to obliviousness, but the director is professional weirdo James Franco, and he gives a sensitive and sympathetic performance as Wiseau. He actually underplays the role, if you can believe it. For a guy like Franco, who has built his career ping-ponging between mainstream studio fair and exceptionally bizarre arthouse projects,1 The Disaster Artist‘s entirely conventional style and approach feels way too safe and obvious. There must be something else going on. And once you think about how Franco dwells on the way laughter really does hurt Tommy, despite all outward appearances, you can start to see what that something else is.
The Disaster Artist, then, is maybe something of a joke on the jokers. It’s a movie about how laughing at Tommy Wiseau is what villains do, with a cast overflowing with people who have publicly laughed at Tommy, and which tests its audience by inviting them to laugh along, even as we’re told straight out that it hurts his feelings. Instead of being just an offbeat, Ed Wood-style Hollywood fairy tale, perhaps The Disaster Artist is a straight-faced takedown of that very thing.
So what are we laughing at here: is it Wiseau, his movie, or ourselves, the people who have spent years laughing at Wiseau or pretentiously try to pass our mockery of him off as praise? Maybe all of the above. At the very least, this time we can expect Tommy Wiseau to laugh along… all the way to the Oscars.