THE DISTASTER ARTIST: My Life Inside “The Room,” the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. By Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Simon & Schuster. 270 pages. $25.99.
As a book about a cinematic comedy of errors, “The Disaster Artist” is much better than the mess of a movie it describes. That movie is “The Room,” which has gone all but unnoticed on the East Coast until lately but developed a West Coast following after its sickly 2003 release.
“The Room” might never have been shown on a big screen without the efforts of its deep-pocketed auteur, Tommy Wiseau, to buy attention. Wiseau, whom the book describes as looking like “the Hunchback of Notre Dame following corrective surgery,” paid to keep a ghoulish billboard image of himself — the film’s star, writer producer, director and Napoleon — scowling down on Los Angeles for five long years. It advertised “The Room” even when “The Room” was nowhere to be seen.
It makes sense that the cult of “The Room,” if it seriously exists, would be a California phenomenon. The funniest aspects of this film are gaffes that any filmmaker, film student, comic actor or wannabe would find mind-boggling.
Continuity flubs are everywhere. Dialogue makes no sense. The doorway to a so-called rooftop setting is the door to an outhouse. And, most memorably, Wiseau let the film’s main set be decorated by framed photographs of spoons.
Why? Because that’s how the frames were sold. And Wiseau, an impetuous incompetent (or “narcissistic nonpareil,” as Scott Foundas called him in Variety’s review) lacked the patience to find other photos. His most participatory fans like to throw plastic spoons at “The Room” when it is screened.
None of this changes the fact that “The Room” is a sad, plotless tribute to its auteur, who plays an innocent named Johnny, the only decent person in the movie. Everybody else wrongs him, especially Greg Sestero, one of the authors of this book, who played beauty to Wiseau’s beast in the film.
Sestero, whose more personal part of the book mentions having been referred to as a pretty boy in his early acting days (he also modeled), chooses to see nothing too creepy in the possessive, obsessive way that Wiseau recruited him as a best friend after they met in an acting class. In the class, Wiseau once threw a glass of water at a wall and kept on doing his scene.
Tom Bissell, whose last book included a profile of Wiseau, collaborated with Sestero to tell the story of that friendship, intercutting it with tales of how the film was made. This is a good strategy, since neither narrative could sustain a whole book on its own. They use frequent quotations from both “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to add a frisson of exploitative seduction to the Tommy-Greg friendship. It goes noticeably unexplored that, after Wiseau coaxes Sestero into living with him, he leaves his bedroom door ajar. Sestero hears him saying, “Somebody’s chicken.” He also notices Wiseau’s open contempt for women.
As with “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” one character has money to burn, and the other character needs it. That was how Wiseau hired Sestero to play Mark, even though the role had already been cast.
The book describes the cringe-worthy but comic awkwardness of Wiseau’s trying to hide this betrayal from the actor he doesn’t want, dragging out the subterfuge to an absurd degree.
“The Disaster Artist” doesn’t finally say much about the movie business, since this one film and its maker are so fluky. And when the movie came out, crazily absurd filmmaking was harder to find: There was tinfoil science fiction, the wonderfully bizarre work of Ed Wood and not much else so disingenuous.
Now the Internet is full of eccentricity and ineptitude, so perhaps “The Room” is less of a rarity than it once was. But it gets new momentum, thanks to this book.