Ego vs. Ego: THE ROOM and THE DISASTER ARTIST

by Rita Amer

Cult-hit film The Room (2003) perfectly balances the elements of a So-Bad-It’s-Good Movie: gross miscalculation and naive sincerity with a huge, heaping helping of the optional element: incompetence.

Writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau’s egotism is so monstrous that he can’t see through it or around it. Wiseau’s complete immersion in his own fantasy world and lack of self-reflection are what make The Room so funny. It sounds mean to say it but that’s why showings of The Room sell out.

The reason most of us aren’t conscience-stricken by our derision of  someone’s misfired dreams is that bad movie auteurs and bad actors exhibit an invulnerability that precludes pity and elicits a certain superior glee. Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood are perfect examples of this monomania that opens the door to ironic hilarity. On the other hand, tender or vulnerable failures do not have sold-out midnight showings. They, rather, dissolve into (merciful?) obscurity.

Perhaps, there is absolution for audiences in the likelihood that most of these delicious failures would be or, in the case of Wiseau, are delighted by any success, even if it isn’t the kind they had hoped for.

There is a great deal to inspire glee in The Room, most of it centered on Wiseau with his strange strangeness. His voice, his laugh, his unfathomable acting, his hair flinging, his bare ass, which are captured by James Franco’s pluperfect imitation of Tommy Wiseau in his quasi-biopic The Disaster Artist. Franco’s film implicitly ridicules Wiseau and The Room the same way that audiences do overtly. Wiseau either misses the point or he chooses to turn a blind eye to it so that he can bask in the increased notoriety and success flowing from a major film about him and filled with famous Hollywood actors.

The Disaster Artist treads on dangerous territory. Many fine actors have done perfect imitations of their subjects only to come off as unrealistic or too big. Take, for example, Joseph Gordon Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. He was criticized for his bad French accent, which sounded just like Petit’s. The most successful impersonations include a little softening, a little interpretation like Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, in which she nailed the essence and style of Monroe by dialing back the mannerisms and voice. And, of course, Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood.

Franco’s portrayal, on the other hand, is the exception to this rule. He grabs every hair flip, every huffy laugh without embarrassment and to great praise because his performance is just as monstrously egotistic as as Wiseau’s was.  Yet, Franco’s egotism paradoxically is an asset because like any good mirror he reverses the subject’s image. Wiseau is talentless while Franco, inversely, is talented.

The Disaster Artist‘s reenactments of scenes from The Room are disciplined perfection. At the same time, the slavish reproduction of The Room and Wiseau’s persona leaves no room for insight or depth. The Disaster Artist is James Franco’s high wire act. High wire acts leave no room for subtlety, insight, or sub-textual nuance, lest the performer fall. The rest of the cast and the plot of The Disaster Artist are merely a frame for Franco’s overwhelmingly precise, and unsubtle, depiction of Wiseau who is overwhelming and unsubtle every minute of the day.

The movie feels a little long. Ten or fifteen minutes could have been knocked off the preliminaries wherein Greg Sestero (co-star of The Room and Wiseau’s best friend) and Wiseau meet, bond, and move to Hollywood (though James Franco must, must keep the scene in which Wiseau plays Stanley Kowalski in acting class). We all want to get to the filming of The Room. That’s why we’re here.

For a double feature, pair this successful impression of a real person with an unsuccessful but equally hilarious one. Watch this with the unbelievable The Eddie Cantor Story (1953). This film ruined Keefe Brasselle’s career. His portrayal of “Banjo Eyes” is spot-on as to Cantor’s Apostle of Pep stage persona. Brasselle’s mistake (or the director’s) was to depict Cantor just as broadly off-stage. The other problem was that Cantor was very famous and beloved, unlike Wiseau, so the critics were much harsher with Brasselle than was warranted. But the film is a great, banjo-eye, skippity, hopping, hand-tapping laugh riot.

 

Rita F Amer began the Amer dynasty of Scarecrow employees in 1998. After her tenure with Scarecrow, Rita’s daughter Xoe took up the mantle. Mother and daughter are lifelong cineastes and often discuss film and filmmakers on their podcast Foibles http://foibles.podbean.com

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