“Imagine a movie so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again.”
So writes Greg Sestero in the author’s note of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, co-written with Tom Bissell. Published in 2013, the book details the production of what is widely reputed to be the worst movie ever made — and now, it’s been adapted into a feature film by none other than James Franco.
I am not ashamed to admit that I love The Room. I have seen it more times than I can count, and I have strong-armed all of my friends into watching it. And I would happily spend my hard-earned dollars to attend one of its legendary midnight screenings, where audience members engage in the ritualistic practice of collectively yelling phrases at the screen during certain scenes.
Obviously, I am not alone in my fanaticism. In the 14 years since its original release, The Room has achieved near-mythical status in the canon of the so-called ‘trash film,’ a genre defined by low budgets and amateurish production. So great is the fervour of The Room’s fan base that it has been the subject of actual empirical research.
Given the film’s notoriety, I was not altogether surprised when I first heard that The Disaster Artist — which, yes, I have read through multiple times — was on its way to the big screen. I was torn: excited on the one hand, nervous on the other.
I was excited because I will gleefully consume any Room-related media without hesitation — did you know that some wonderful soul made an entire tribute game on Newgrounds? Because I sure did! — and I was nervous because the very concept of a Disaster Artist movie seemed too contradictory a project to be successful.
A study published in the journal Poetics, which examined audiences’ consumption of trash films, found that people who watch movies like The Room do so largely because they appreciate their marked deviance from the norms of mainstream cinema. The appeal of these films lies in their transgressive nature. This is as true for The Room as for any other ‘trash’ movie — films such as The Black Gestapo (1975), Roadhouse (1989), or Ben & Arthur (2003). To quote Disaster Artist co-author Bissell, “[The Room] is like a movie made by an alien who has never seen a movie, but has had movies thoroughly explained to him.”
The Room is fun to watch because, despite the veneer of legitimacy afforded it by a $6 million budget, it is conspicuously missing every single element that makes for a ‘good’ movie. It is full of plot holes and abandoned subplots; its characters’ motivations are inscrutable, illogical, or both; its writing is nonsensical at best, syntactically splintered at worst.
In sharp contrast to The Room, The Disaster Artist is beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and it possesses a coherent narrative structure. It bears all the markers of your typical mainstream movie.
And yet The Disaster Artist does not feel typical. This is especially thanks to Franco’s masterful portrayal of Tommy Wiseau, the maverick who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in The Room. Franco’s Wiseau is so uncannily familiar it verges on the surreal, down to his singularly ambiguous accent, described by Sestero and Bissell as “an Eastern European accent that had been hit by a Parisian bus.”
At the same time, The Disaster Artist’s treatment of Wiseau is never cruel, though it easily could have been. It does an exceedingly good job of humanizing a figure that has captivated the public through his eccentricity. The Disaster Artist embraces the niche-ness of its source material, but it does so in a way that makes it compatible with a big-budget, big-name production.
Yes, there are pitfalls to wrestling a movie like The Room into the framework of a Hollywood feature. To a great extent, enjoyment of The Disaster Artist requires familiarity with The Room — I suspect that, for the uninitiated, the film may be more confusing than hilarious.
That said, when you look past its esoteric exterior, the core themes of The Disaster Artist, I think, hold a broader appeal. At the end of the day, the movie is asking its viewers an important question: what is art, and what makes it ‘good?’
“The Room, to me, shatters the distinction between good and bad,” Bissell told Vox in an interview earlier this year. “Do I think it’s a good movie? No. Do I think it’s a strong movie that moves me on the level that art usually moves me? Absolutely not. But I can’t say it’s bad because … it’s brought me so much joy.”