Who is Tommy Wiseau?
It’s a question that long has befuddled and endlessly amused fans of “The Room,” the infamously bad 2003 movie Wiseau directed, self-financed and starred in. Where did this billboard-self-promoting, Terminator-sunglasses-wearing Frozen Caveman Lawyer knockoff come from? (He has claimed New Orleans but investigation – and his accent – suggest Poland.) How old is he? (No one knows but older than he has said.) And where did he get his apparent wealth? (The movie cost $6 million to make, partly because Wiseau insisted on shooting on both 35mm film and digital.)
It’s also a question James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” a comedy about Wiseau and the making of “The Room,” has no interest in answering. That’s because “The Disaster Artist” isn’t really about Tommy Wiseau. It’s about James Franco.
A quick recap for the uninitiated. “The Room” ran for two weeks in Los Angeles (Wiseau wanted it to qualify for the Oscars) and roundly was panned as a singularly terrible movie. But it found a “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-sized cult, with sold-out midnight screenings that continue to run. Devotees thrilled to the movie’s cheesy filmmaking, its strange, woeful imitation of Tennessee Williams dialogue (“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”), its bizarre narrative incongruities (one character announces having cancer only for it never to be talked of again) and its proliferation of spoons throughout (which fans bring to throw at screenings).
Wiseau’s friend and co-star Greg Sestero later wrote the 2013 book, with author Tom Bissell, titled “The Disaster Artist” about the inept making of the movie – framing the film as a nuttier version of classic Hollywood tales like “Sunset Boulevard.” Franco, himself, reviewed the book, concluding Wiseau wasn’t just a punchline but was an outlandish version of every fumbling aspirant to Hollywood. “In so many ways, Tommy c’est moi,” Franco wrote.
To be sure, “The Disaster Artist,” which is based on Sestero and Bissell’s book, will appeal most to fans of “The Room.” Much of it plays like a prequel. Our first, immediately recognizable shot of Tommy (Franco with a long, jet-black mane) is in silhouette, as if John Wayne is making his entrance. He and Sestero meet at acting class, start reading lines together and are soon headed to Los Angeles to make it big.
I can’t say I ever found “The Room” nearly so funny as others. Wiseau is far from an outlier in having misbegotten, even demented delusions of fame. He’s kind of a tragic figure, an immigrant trying to hide his past while making what he hopes will be an “all-American” movie.
And large swaths of “The Disaster Artist” play off the joke of a hapless goon trying to cast himself as James Dean. As a movie about Wiseau, “The Disaster Artist” isn’t very good. He remains a mystery throughout. Aside from a spot-on, “SNL”-ready impression of Wiseau, there’s just not much here besides a loose jumble of recreations and allusions to “The Room.” (For a testament to the art of failure, see Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.”)
Yet, as a movie about James Franco, “The Disaster Artist” is a smash hit. Franco populates the film with friends and comedians, from Jason Mantzoukas to Seth Rogen (also a producer). Franco’s brother, Dave, stars alongside him as Sestero, making the homoerotic bromance between the characters an outright lark. It’s not a coincidence the big-name producer Tommy awkwardly approaches at a restaurant (and performs “Hamlet”) is played by Judd Apatow, who gave Franco his first break on “Freaks and Geeks” nearly two decades ago.
The 39-year-old Franco, who now has directed some 18 movies, long has been drawn to all things meta, and, on that score, “The Disaster Artist” is his piece de resistance. There’s something joyful about the Franco brothers playing a fun-house mirror version of their own Hollywood arrival, and the film’s best scenes are with Rogen’s production manager, aghast at Tommy’s incompetence.
When Tommy introduces “The Room” at its premiere, Franco might as well be speaking for himself. “This my move and this my life,” he says. “OK. Be cool.”