Exploiting our Archives: Scalding Hot Takes #3 The Disaster Artist
In the My World of Flops piece on Rachel Dolezal’s fascinatingly, poignantly, hilariously misguided memoir, I wrote about how Dolezal casually mentions that because of her Dickensian upbringing as the abused and overworked progeny of scheming, racist parents she has no sense of humor. The disgraced former Civil Rights leader tosses the comment about her inveterate humorlessness out almost as an aside, but I think it explains an awful lot about the way Dolezal sees the world and herself, and why she’s ultimately so fascinatingly devoid of both self-consciousness and self-awareness.
Judging from her memoir, Dolezal genuinely cannot understand why anybody would see anything remotely comic about a white woman deciding relatively late in life that she’s Black. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Dolezal so thoroughly and dramatically misjudged how the world would respond to her deception and delusional self-perception.
Comedy is one of the ways through which we not only process but understand the world. So people who do not understand or enjoy comedy almost by definition will have problems understanding the rest of the world as well. If Dolezal had a sense of humor, about herself or anything else, she would not, for example, sell sexy, inspirational calendars featuring glamour shots-style cheesecake photography of herself looking kittenish and sensual alongside a series of inspirational quotes on how to be “woke” soul sister from Dolezal herself.
If you do not understand jokes, as a rule, then it follows that you wouldn’t understand why you’re seen as a joke and why your actions and words and ideas are unexpectedly comic and ridiculous to other people. It seems safe to assume that Tommy Wiseau, the idiosyncratic writer, director, financier and star of The Room and the subject of James Franco’s terrific and much buzzed-about new comedy-drama about its unlikely creation, has just as non-existent a sense of humor as Dolezal and just as little self-consciousness and self-awareness.
Ironically, nothing drives home Wiseau’s surreal humorlessness quite like his oft-deployed laugh. Then again, “laugh” should definitely be in quotation marks because while Wiseau’s chuckle may feature the same sounds as everyone else’s, otherwise everything else is different.
If genuine laughter is a spontaneous and joyful expression of understanding and appreciation so natural it’s reflexive, then Wiseau’s laughter is inveterately forced, pained and joyless. It's a dry, desperately phony approximation of sincere amusement that relentlessly calls attention to itself even as it professes to be effortless and sincere.
As Tommy Wiseau, Serious Artist and sentient goof James Franco nails all of the surface details of the cipher he’s playing, particularly the sadness and confusion of that hard, brittle, fake quasi-laugh of confusion and desperation. Franco captures that while Wiseau’s mouth, which perpetually feels like it’s full of peanut butter and/or cotton-mouth-inducing pills may be joylessly droning, “Ha ha ha”, the eyes betray that he has no idea what he’s supposed to find amusing, but apparently “laughing” is a common trait of these “humans” so as long as he’s at least attempting to pass among their ranks, he might as well give it a shot.
Wiseau’s laugh, as uncannily reproduced by Franco, is so distractingly artificial that it suggests that he doesn’t actually find anything or anyone funny, but feels compelled to attempt laughter anyway as part of his method preparations for playing a human being.
The Disaster Artist gets what’s funny and weird and creepy about Tommy Wiseau’s laugh, even when it’s not inexplicably and incongruously deployed in response to learning about the scandalous harlot whose promiscuity landed her in the hospital on Guerrero Street. That’s the first layer of The Room, the part that’s so fascinatingly wrong and misguided and unforgettable that the movie has taken on not just a second life but a third and fourth.
What makes The Disaster Artist more than just a clever exercise in pop culture snark is that it understands on a profound and deeply human level what makes Tommy Wiseau’s laugh achingly sad, even tragic, as well as funny.
Wiseau’s laugh is supposed to say, “I’m in on the joke.” It’s designed to convey, as succinctly and persuasively as possible, that Wiseau “gets it.” Most importantly, a sincere, genuine, properly timed laugh, the kind you don’t even have to think about because it comes so naturally, says “I understand.” That’s what Wiseau’s “laughter” is supposed to effortlessly convey. Instead, it conveys the opposite. For if there is one quality that defines Wiseau above all others, it is that he most assuredly does not understand. He doesn’t understand with a purity and completeness worthy of Dolezal.
Wiseau’s poignant lack of comprehension as to what makes us human has made him a figure of mockery but also of intense fascination. That’s certainly true of his relationship with Sestero, who Dave Franco plays here as an absolute beginner who’s handsome and charming and nice but all too aware that it takes much more than looks, charm and affability to make it in show-business.
It also takes resources and confidence, two qualities the insecure and self-conscious Sestero lacks but that his curious new acting class buddy Wiseau seems to possess in suspicious abundance. Franco’s Wiseau seems to possess delusional confidence but it’s the insane over-compensating over-confidence of someone justifiably terrified that there’s nothing underneath all that bluster and hubris.
There’s a sadness and a free-floating sense of loneliness and desperation at the core of Franco’s performance as Wiseau. He’s not just a little bit off. No, there’s something deeply unwell about Franco’s Wiseau on an almost biological level. He seems like a guy who hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in years, who seems to be rotting from the inside out even as he tries to transform himself into the perfect fuck machine for the ultimate erotic thriller.
When Greg Sestero (Franco) first meets Tommy Wiseau he’s a famously baby-faced teenager with a look that is, if anything, possibly too All-American and boy next door and Wiseau appeared to be roughly seven thousand years old and the least American actor this side of Roberto Benigni.
Sestero is a kid and Wiseau seems to have always existed in some form of another, like a vampire, or a goblin, or some other manner of mythological beast found in Eastern Europe. Wiseau’s inveterate foreignness makes Sestero seem even more adorably All-American by comparison. His fresh-faced ebullience throws Wiseau’s glowering method intensity into even sharper relief.
Before there was The Room, there was the enigma of Tommy Wiseau, a personality too big and strange and preposterous to exist, yet a weird, semi-malignant, semi-positive influence in Sestero’s life even before they became, respectively, Johnny and Mark, best friends, romantic rivals and ultimately fatal enemies. Like the terrific book upon which it is based, The Disaster Artist is winningly candid about the central role money played both in Sestero and Wiseau’s relationship and then in the making of The Room.
Why was Wiseau able to get away with being such an off-putting weirdo, in real life as well as onscreen? The answer, not surprisingly, comes down to money. Wiseau believed in Sestero’s career with a fawning, almost child-like faith, but more importantly, he used his vast, mysterious resources to essentially bankroll Sestero’s early career as a struggling actor desperate to get ahead in an industry that devours lambs like himself on an hourly basis.
Money played a huge role but there was also something about Wiseau’s seemingly impregnable, if delusional self-belief that resonated with Sestero. The Disaster Artist allows us to laugh at Wiseau while still being moved by his dreams, and to see something incongruously beautiful, even pure, about those aspirations even if they are doomed to be realized in the most fascinatingly incompetent manner imaginable.
The Disaster Artist positively reminded me a lot of Ed Wood in book form. That’s even more true of the film adaptation. Like Tim Burton’s beloved valentine to man’s insatiable hunger to create in general and one dreamer in particular, The Disaster Artist offers the curious phenomenon of the film industry’s biggest winners and power-brokers paying tongue-in-cheek homage to the handiwork of some of cult film’s most exquisitely deluded dreamers.
In The Disaster Artist, the extraordinarily talented and successful eerily channel the work of the extraordinarily talentless and unsuccessful. What played as exquisite anti-comedy in Wiseau’s original (and for all its stealing from Tennessee Williams and Rebel Without a Cause, Wiseau’s film is nothing if not original) plays almost as well here.
The film’s loving, perversely faithful recreations of scenes in The Room recall similar sequences in Ed Wood but with a much different context. The filmmaking scenes in Ed Wood play as daffy comedies of invention. The filmmaking scenes in The Disaster Artist, in sharp contrast, play like shadowy psychodrama with a darkly comic bent.
The title character in Ed Wood is a lovable dreamer who manages to suck other daffy eccentrics into his dreams. Wiseau is a much more malevolent figure. Wiseau doesn’t charm other strugglers into believing in him and his dream—instead, he pays people enough that they’re willing to be bullied and overworked and abused for the privilege of sort of working in the film business.
I’ve seen my share of movies that James Franco has written, directed and starred in, going back to The Ape, a broad comedy where he played an aspiring writer (oh, the imagination!) whose roommate is clearly a dude in a store-bought gorilla costume, and before The Disaster Artist I was never particularly impressed by him as a filmmaker.
Franco’s movies were interesting, to be sure, but they were so slight that they barely seemed to exist. Franco is always going for something interesting, something daring, something important, something real. But before The Disaster Artist he never got there. In that respect, the movie is the perfect distillation of Franco’s aesthetic as an actor, a filmmaker and a Warholian celebrity pathologically obsessed with his own fame.
The director and star loses and finds himself in the narcissistic insanity of Tommy Wiseau. He finds, in that most mocked and ridiculed of self-made movie stars and auteurs something poignant and funny and weirdly enduring about our need to understand and be understood as well as adored and admired.
In his best, biggest performance since playing Alien in Spring Breakers, James Franco takes the otherworldliness of this quintessential trash culture icon and makes it poignantly, unforgettably human.
Want to hear more about The Disaster Artist? Oh yes you do! Then listen tomorrow to the third episode of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast with Nathan and Clint! https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/nathan-rabins-happy-cast/id1312945471?mt=2
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