$14.00 ticket on a scale of $0 to $15.00.
The late Howard Teichmann (writer, “Miss Lonelyhearts,” “The Solid Gold Cadillac”) used to tell his dramatic writing students at Barnard College, “If the audience cries, you wrote a tragedy. If they laugh you wrote a comedy.” That is more or less the theme of recently released “The Disaster Artist,” a film based on the book of the same title by Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero. The book is subtitled, “My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made,” which is an enormous clue that a lot of inside baseball unspools on its screen.
Showbiz folks love to turn the camera on the biz, which is generally fairly successful, largely, your critic thinks, because they know the material. Think “Day for Night” (the ultimate movie within a movie), “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Network,” “Make Room for Daddy,” and “The Producers,” to name but a few. Accordingly it ought astonish no one that “The Disaster Artist” satisfies on many levels.
“The Room” is a terrible movie, which opened to a box office of $1,800 in its first weekend. Its writer/director/producer/star, the mysterious (no one knows his age, where he came from, or how he made his considerable fortune) Tommy Wiseau (played in “Artist” by James Franco who directs and gets a co-producer credit). Tommy is alive and well and still making pictures along with “The Room” co-star Greg Sestero (brother Dave Franco in “Artist”), who is not nearly so mysterious. The claim that it is the greatest bad movie ever made is may be a tad exaggerated. Some would give that honor to “Desperate Living,” helmed by John Waters. In one sense “Artist” is a buddy film and at the same time the classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy gets-girl-back with Tommy as the boy and Greg as the girl (except that there is no sex between them). Technically it is outstanding — in a paradoxical way. More on that later.
Pic’s inside showbiz references will delight movie trivia buffs. For example: Franco played the late James Dean in a 2001 eponymous TV biopic. It offers two references to Dean. First is footage on TV of Dean in the police station scene from “Rebel Without a Cause.” The second places Franco (star/director/co-producer) as Tommy and brother Dave Franco (co-star) as friend and aspiring actor Greg on an emotional road trip to the site of Dean’s fatal car crash.
Thanks to generous title cards those who never heard of “The Room” (and its estimated $9.7-million total box office receipts indicates that there are likely many) will have no trouble knowing what is going on. Here is the plot in brief: It begins in San Francisco in 1998 with Greg meeting a maniacal Tommy in acting class. Greg has just done a really bad job in a scene from “Waiting for Godot” under the critical eye of coach Jean Shelton (Melanie Griffith) when next up is a solo by Tommy who chews up the scenery while yelling, “Della,” or something like that. Interested, Greg stops Tommy after class and asks if he’d consider doing a scene with him. They bond, despite Tommy’s oversize persona and some costuming which makes him look like a cross between Jim Morrison and Tiny Tim at the ends of their respective lives. (Once past the first reel Franco’s costumes are more flattering to him.) Tommy’s accent (he claims to from New Orleans) is a running joke throughout. It sounds like the love child of Dracula and Ricky Ricardo. Franco deserves praise for keeping it up throughout the pic. It has been said that he directed “The Disaster Artist” in character as Tommy. Once they bond it’s off to Los Angeles to be roommates and make their fortunes in movies, much to the dismay of teenage Greg’s mother (Megan Mullally in one of pic’s juicy all-star cameos), who suspects Tommy to be a child molester after her teenage son.
Greg is signed by an agent (Sharon Stone perfectly cast) with the line, “Sine him up. You’re mine, Bubbie!” He meets his love interest, Amber (Alison Brie) a bartender who hits on him at first sight. Tommy, meanwhile, goes nowhere.
Eventually Greg joins him nowhere. That’s what inspires Tommy to make his own movie for the two of them to star. Fast-forward to May, 2001. Tommy is putting “The Room” into production. Tommy’s script is trash. He can direct anyone except himself. His first scene on camera needs 58 takes because he can’t remember his lines.
It is at this point that even the casual observer will note that “The Disaster Artist” has many of the technical characteristics of the pic on which it is based. There is a lot of jumpy hand-held camera work with the lighting not quite right and the audio somewhat off-mike. “The Disaster Artist” really looks like a low-budget pic made by hacks. It is far more work to appear consistently bad for effect than it is for pros to achieve near perfection. Lensing by Brendan Trost wavers not throughout. Stacey Schroder’s cutting takes the same approach. Creative choices are spot-on for the material. Franco gets kudos for firm and economical direction as well as for acting chops: certain clips of “The Room” (left on a split-screen) and “The Disaster Artist” (right) in identical scenes prove that he did not play Tommy; he channeled Tommy. Rest of cast principals deserve the same. And even with this extra, which runs for a few minutes after the closing credits, Franco still brings pic in at 104 minutes.
Since pic’s plot is public record there is no need for a spoiler alert. The premiere audience, squirming at how bad “The Room” is, eventually are ROTFL (“rolling on the floor laughing” for those challenged in text-speak). Tommy becomes so upset that his dramatic masterpiece is laughed at (bruised ego; it’s an extension of himself) that he goes on a mini-rampage against some newspaper honor boxes outside the theater.
Found and brought back to the premiere by Greg, he realizes that he wrote a comedy, for which he is soon taking credit. Teichmann was not kidding.
“The Room” did win one award, and it is not minor. The Audience Award for Best Feature Film at the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival, the year after its release, certainly did not hamper its rise to “cult” status.
“The Disaster Artist,” rated R due to some nudity and a few off-color words, is hardly a disaster. Really there is nothing offensive or cringeworthy. However, auds should be warned not to leave until the curtain comes down.