James Franco’s new movie The Disaster Artist has gotten much better reviews than the “Citizen Kane of bad movies” that is its subject—but how does it play if you’ve never seen The Room? We sent two Slate writers who have never seen Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece to find out.
Jeffrey Bloomer: Oh, hi Aisha. We’ve just seen The Disaster Artist, and I think I’m slightly closer to understanding the enduring obsession with The Room, which neither of us has seen. I may also be redeveloping feelings for James Franco. But first: How have we avoided The Room for so long? I know several evangelists, but I think their inability to describe the movie without breaking down into deranged laughter kept me away.
Aisha Harris: Oh hai, Jeffrey. (I’ve been informed by a Room evangelist that that is the movie’s canonical spelling of “Oh hai,” btw.) I have no idea how I’ve gone this long without indulging in what appears to be a glorious, delirious monstrosity of filmmaking, the results of completely misplaced ambition and an utter lack of self-awareness.
For one, I’d somehow never even heard of this movie until maybe four years ago? And also I think it’s because, since it’s become such a cult classic associated with participatory midnight screenings, I’ve been waiting to see it for the first time in that exact environment. It’s the same reason it took me until college to finally see Rocky Horror—and it did not disappoint. I still want to wait until the right setting to see The Room now, but after watching The Disaster Artist, it may be harder for me to do that. For me, too, the movie seemed to help crystalize why it’s so bad and simultaneously considered so “good.”
But yeah, let’s talk about James Franco. His laugh was amazing.
Bloomer: In a weird way, I think this movie is as much about James Franco as it is about his real-life character, Tommy Wiseau. There is a meta sheen that goes much deeper than the constant winks at The Room’s midnight faithful, and watching The Disaster Artist, it’s not hard to understand why Franco—who has had his own disastrous ups and downs—cast himself in the title role.
We’ll come back to that! I think our animating question here is whether a Room virgin can see The Disaster Artist and really enjoy it. I think my answer is: Yes? At our screening, one of the film’s writers said he didn’t even see The Room until after he turned in the first draft of the script. Our audience was constantly giggling at jokes I don’t think I got, but the movie works simply as a very sweet—and at times very uncomfortable—buddy comedy about the pain of friendships growing apart over time. And also as a love letter to that one old friend you keep even though no one else understands why.
Harris: So true! I’m pretty sure I had at least a grin on my face throughout the entire screening. That theme of the old friend you keep around to everyone else’s confusion was such an interesting aspect of the film. The opening scene, in which Tommy and Greg (played by James Franco’s brother, Dave) meet in acting class, does a really good job of making us understand, in such a short amount of time, why Greg would be drawn to a dude like Tommy in the first place: He’s failing to connect with his own work, and then sees this wild, off-his-rocker older guy give an indescribable, balls-to-the-wall interpretation of Brando in Streetcar that makes zero sense. But he’s going for it, man! And that’s the spark.
Bloomer: The “acting class scene” may be a lazy way to introduce characters, but here, it was perfect. Let me ask you this: Having watched this movie, do you think you can reconstruct the plot of The Room?
Harris: Nope, not a bit. Zac Efron makes a very funny appearance as a cast member who is supposed to rob another character in an alley? I think that character was supposed to know him, because there’s a funny moment where Tommy directs him to call him “Chris R.” and he’s like, “Can’t I just call him Chris?” (No, you can’t.) I have no idea what Efron’s character is doing there.
I also have no idea why that same kid who was not played by Zac Efron was carousing in bed with Tommy’s character and the leading lady. I’d actually be curious to know if Disaster Artist somehow managed to make the original even more confusing than it already is, if that’s even possible.
Bloomer: Josh Hutcherson was the kid! I didn’t even recognize him. So many essential cameos. I think my favorite was Sharon Stone, not that I’m ever mad at Efron. And yes: I still do not at all get the weird incest thing.
Harris: Do you have any idea what the plot of The Room might be? Or what could possibly drive Tommy’s character to shoot himself in the end? (The writhing on the floor with the red dress right before he does it was … something.)
Bloomer: I gather that Mark has an affair with Lisa, Johnny’s beloved, and that leads to the pageant of the red dress and the gun? I’m not sure where the breast cancer and the horny teenager and “Chris R.” fit into all of that, but it seems like the gist.
Harris: Was there any point where you thought, This can’t be real? or, How did anyone let this go on for as long as it did? For me, it was probably when Tommy kept laughing in response to one of Greg’s super serious lines (I can’t recall what it was, because that laugh was just so distracting).
Bloomer: I believe it was in response to the story of a woman beaten by a man for sleeping around, which was … disturbing in a way I’m not sure the movie reckoned with.
I think I most got caught up on the real-life details about Tommy—the “bottomless” bank account, the multiple apartments, the idea of this guy living his own self-created myth in real life. It’s incredible to me that no one’s really figured out what’s going on with him.
Harris: Maybe hindsight is 20/20, but even just watching The Disaster Artist made it clear how all the signs were there that something was amiss. Even when it got to the point where people were fainting on set due to there being no A/C and no water, in clear violation of the law, they still kept shooting! Not that we needed a reminder, but it’s still amazing what someone with that much money can get away with.
Bloomer: Yes, in that way, this is also simply a great industry movie in that slightly exaggerated showbiz parody mode, heightened here because the end result was The Room. Beyond all the Wiseau winks and nods, there are endless Easter eggs for Hollywood lovers.
Harris: What did you think of the final scene, the weirdly triumphant unveiling of The Room on opening night? Clearly that was the trajectory of the film’s road to cult status compressed significantly for dramatic effect, right? There’s no way the audience, including the cast who had already been put through hell, was that enraptured and willing to laugh it off.
Bloomer: I wonder how true to life that was! It’s a testament to The Disaster Artist’s strange, sneaky power that the scene is so emotional and genuinely touching. Even though Tommy is, by the movie’s own telling, kind of a maniacal jerk, I felt genuinely hurt for him when the screening started to unravel. And that fleeting moment of self-awareness when Greg convinces him that he made something special—even if it wasn’t, uh, what he intended—was very satisfying. There’s got to be an oral history of that screening out there, right?
Harris: Well, it’s based on the real Greg’s book The Disaster Artist, so I imagine it’s mentioned in there?
Bloomer: I confess I know as little about The Disaster Artist as I do about The Room.
Harris: I can’t say I felt bad for Tommy, though I sympathized with him a bit—honestly, I was too busy cracking up at the romp in the bed, and Tommy’s bare ass.
Bloomer: Yes, James has been working out.
Harris: Good lord, he has. What did you think of his accent? I still have at this point only heard bits of the real Wiseau speaking, and that’s during the end credits of the movie, when they show the side-by-side scenes of the original film and The Disaster Artist’s version. Franco’s voice sort of drowns it out, but then we also get a cameo from scenes at the very end, post-credits. It did sort of seem like there was a bit of exaggeration in the accent happening, right? Or was that just me?
Bloomer: That credits side-by-sides seemed like fan service, but it was also a helpful reference for people like us who had never seen The Room. I did worry the sequence made the film’s many great performances (from a pretty incredible cast) seem like crude caricatures that further hammed up some of the hammiest performances in movie history. Like: No need to exaggerate, guys! It’s already there. That was especially true for Franco and his gait and accent.
I still thought he was perfect for the movie. One more way The Disaster Artist works for non-Room fans is director James Franco’s ideal use of James Franco. His endless, self-indulgent creative tangents over the years eventually turned off even his most loyal fans, including unwisely devoted ones like me, who used to DVR General Hospital when he played an assassin. He brings soul to the role, and I couldn’t help but imagine the movie’s events as a transformation both for Tommy on screen and, on another level, for Franco as a Hollywood figure. He amplifies the personal dimension by casting his brother Dave as Greg and making the entire cast a grab bag of performers and filmmakers (Seth Rogen! Judd Apatow! Bryan Cranston!) he’s worked with throughout his career.
Harris: I can count myself as one of Franco’s unwisely devoted fans, though I’ve fallen off in recent years. Interestingly enough, he first caught my attention when I was a freshman in high school and in my peak James Dean obsession phase, which coincided fortuitously with Franco’s Golden Globe-winning turn as the rebel in the 2001 TV movie James Dean. I don’t know if Greg and Tommy’s interest in Dean as seen in Disaster Artist was a real-life coincidence or if it was added for the movie, but if it’s the former, that parallel is telling. Dean is considered such a pioneer of a certain style of acting, and also of being an outsider who challenged the system (even though the three movies he made were firmly in the system mold), Wiseau and Franco have both tried to emulate that to wildly varying degrees of success. (Oh wait, how the heck could I forget “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISAAAAAAA”? Yeah, Tommy admired Dean.)
So Jeff, after watching The Disaster Artist, do you think you’ll finally give in and watch The Room?
Bloomer: It’s strange: I feel like I don’t need to! The Disaster Artist’s eagle-eyed view of the phenomenon and the forces behind it sort of solidified my feeling of being an outsider to the cult. I “get it” now, I guess, but I don’t think I can ever fully experience the WTF magic knowing the backstory. I wonder if this movie could actually tamp down the midnight fervor for The Room, since it sort of has the effect of over-explaining the monster in a horror movie: The mystery of how this happened in the first place is kind of the point!
Harris: I definitely have my concerns now that when I finally do see it, my reaction will be more tempered, especially since we see those side-by-sides at the end. Before The Disaster Artist, I hadn’t even watched a single clip of it on YouTube, so it was completely new to me. Now that I know what to expect, and how they apparently designed a set made to look exactly like the real alleyway just a few feet away from their set, the element of surprise is gone. And I do think The Disaster Artist is probably more of an awe-inspiring experience for those of us who haven’t seen The Room than those who have already.
That said, I still really want to watch it, preferably with a few friends and lots of booze. And spoons. That’s a thing people do at midnight screenings too, I’m told. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯