books to film

Book versus movie: What James Franco’s comedy doesn’t get about the memoir ‘The Disaster Artist’

The Oscar-nominated film does not adequately recreate Tommy Wiseau’s success in directing ‘the worst movie ever made’.

The Room, the 2003 production that has a rating of 3.6 on IMDB and is widely considered the “greatest worst movie” ever made, earned $1,800 on its opening weekend on a budget that crossed $6 million. Headlined by Tommy Wiseau, who also wrote, produced and directed the film, The Room has since earned cult status and regularly runs to packed houses at special screenings.

The film – about a love triangle between Johnny (played by Wiseau), his wife Lisa and his friend Mark – has little internal cohesion, not just with regard to continuity within scenes but also in terms of plot and narrative arc. The acting is hilarious, especially Wiseau’s, who in his head is simulating acting greats like James Dean and Marlon Brando, an exercise that only translates to guffaw-inducing stiltedness on the screen.

Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s friend and Mark in The Room, described their friendship and the making of the film in his 2013 book, The Disaster Artist. In 2017, a film of the same name based on Sestero’s memoir was released. It quickly gained critical acclaim, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, bringing an ironical conclusion to the original whose badness had inspired it.

The book is a detailed account of Sestero’s friendship with Wiseau, from the time the duo first met at Jean Shelton’s acting class in San Francisco to their working together on The Room. The book closes with The Room’s premiere, but since the theatrical release of The Disaster Artist, Sestero and Wiseau have appeared together on many occasions, indicating that their association remains as strong as ever.

The Room (2003).

It could not have been easy for Sestero. In the book, Wiseau comes across as an insecure actor whose desire to make it big as a Hollywood star routinely runs into a primary obstacle: he has no talent for the job. When they meet for the first time, Wiseau has just acted out a confrontation scene from A Streetcar Named Desire in which he is so out of his depth that there are titters through the audience of fellow actors at Shelton’s academy.

At the time – this is 1998 – Sestero is a 20-year-old model from San Francisco looking for his big break in films. Wiseau, on the other hand, is of indeterminate age, certainly in his forties, given his haggard, weather-beaten look. He also has an accent that suggests he is from Eastern Europe but he refuses to accept that he is from anywhere but New Orleans. He loves America and wants desperately to be identified as American, and in Sestero he finds an all-American kid whose presence gives him something to cherish as well as aspire for.

From the beginning, Wiseau is a mix of the generous and the controlling. He helps Sestero by letting him stay in his Los Angeles apartment for a small rent but does not permit him to make any friendships in the new city. He repeatedly pushes Sestero to believe in himself, but is jealous when Sestero receives calls for auditions. The book portrays Wiseau as someone who wanted Sestero all to himself, like a childhood fantasy of the perfect friendship forever at the risk of dissolving due to extraneous factors.

Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero.

The Disaster Artist is particularly good at linking Wiseau’s personality with its ramifications on The Room. Wiseau is so secretive about his past – at no point, for instance, does he reveal the source of his bottomless income – that the only way anything can be gleaned about him is through the film’s script. What causes him to expect complete devotion from those around him? Is his loneliness the result of a failed love affair? Sestero tries answering these questions through the characters that Wiseau visualises for The Room.

One example is the twisted love triangle at the heart of the film. Lisa is never shown drifting towards Mark gradually as any conceivable character would. She approaches him out of the blue one day and blames this later on Johnny’s violence towards her. The characters’ motivations for their actions are never fleshed out, but the film drowns in an overarching sense of drama. It is as if Wiseau wants the audience to fill in the gaps while he focuses merely on the outcome: the pain that Lisa and the world have inflicted on Johnny.

The Disaster Artist (2017).

James Franco plays Wiseau in the film version of The Disaster Artist (he also directed it) and his younger brother Dave plays Sestero. The movie, which runs for a little under two hours, is a super-concise compendium, with entire scenes from the book chopped to make for a somewhat hurried account of the incidents described therein. This takes away from the wholesomeness of the book which is far more successful at not making a caricature of Wiseau, a hardly easy task.

A particular gaffe in the film is the suggestion that Wiseau, crestfallen from receiving serial rejections, chose to make The Room on Sestero’s advice. Not only does the book not say this, it also goes against the portrait of Wiseau the book builds. If there is one thing Sestero tells us about Wiseau, it is that he was always going to make The Room. It would be tempting to call this a megalomaniacal enterprise on Wiseau’s part, and certainly the way the film shaped up, that might be the most charitable explanation.

But the book makes clear that The Room was more than a film for Wiseau. It was not just Wiseau’s protest against a system that won’t let him in (for good reason). It was an entire philosophy of his life, punctuated by how he defined love, heartbreak and loss. Sure, there is a laughable flightiness to the treatment but no one can doubt the strong currents that run underneath. When Johnny shoots himself in the mouth at the end of The Room, he is merely articulating visually what drove all of Wiseau’s actions: a deep, implacable fear of betrayal.

The Disaster Artist (2017).

Unfortunately, the film does not contemplate this inner turmoil at any length, nor the causes that may have driven Wiseau to spend such a lot of money on a project that was doomed from the beginning. Wiseau had little idea of how a film is made – for example, he chose to buy the camera equipment for the production rather than rent it, one reason the costs shot up so grandly. Without the book to prop it up, the movie becomes the ultimate buddy film, in which two men push one another to go for it, in spite of evidence clearly telling them not to.

Besides, Franco is more handsome that Wiseau, a casting choice that detracts from the source of Wiseau’s insecurity, a strong theme in the book. That said, Franco gets a lot of Wiseau’s mannerisms on point, especially his laughter. Like Wiseau, Franco throws his head back and recites “Ha ha ha” when he thinks the occasion demands hilarity. This, like a lot of other things Wiseau gets up to, should be funny but feels rather sad.

Franco’s Wiseau is a light character who does not measure up to his darker, real-life counterpart from the book. The film’s focus is not on the enigma that Wiseau is, but on his unexpected triumph. In the film’s last scene, as The Room’s premiere draws to a close, Wiseau is disheartened at the reaction to what he believes is an earnest representation of his life. Sestero tells him that he has finally done something not even Hitchcock could achieve: leave the audience in splits. The Room, in other words, will live on.

The Disaster Artist was perhaps written and made into a movie because of The Room has had a glorious afterlife. Between the two, however, it is the book that offers a richer reward. Starting off as the autobiography of a young actor hoping to find his feet in Hollywood, it is ultimately a fine character study of Tommy Wiseau. The portrait that so emerges is not pretty but it succeeds in showcasing a personality whose lack of self-awareness allows him to reach for what he has hankered after all his life: recognition and something very nearly like success.

The Disaster Artist (2017).
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