Humanizing Tommy Wiseau (The Disaster Artist)

We only live once. Is it really such a bad thing to spend that time in a delusion of grandeur rather than slogging through reality’s day-to-day? This is the question that The Disaster Artist left me contemplating.

Tommy Wiseau earnestly believes that he made a dramatic masterpiece in his 2003 film The Room. He even put up the money to keep it screening in a Los Angeles theater for two weeks following its release so it would qualify for Academy Awards consideration. Nobody came to see it. Indeed, this delusion is one he shares with exactly himself. For everyone else, The Room is outrageously, hilariously bad. Its many foibles have become infamous for their botched delivery and pure oddity. Yet what has kept the film so prominent in the cultural conscious for well over a decade even after all the jokes had been made is the enigma that is Wiseau.

Since its inception, human kind has found ways to ridicule those it deems “other.” As such, Wiseau becomes a laughing stock for being congenitally strange. The man is a complete goofball who thinks himself akin to Kubrick and Hitchcock. He’s adamantly defended his work over the years, claiming everything in his films is completely intentional even when those who’ve worked with him claim otherwise. The mix of his tone-deaf acting, unplaceable accent and oddly stilted English is uncanny, coming off as what you’d expect out of an intentionally bad performance by a better actor. And who can forget that laugh? Wiseau’s unique quirks make him a unique brand of amateur. In a sense, calling him a bad actor and filmmaker nearly misses the point given how singularly distinct he is from anyone else who’s ever done it. You start to question if there’s a hidden brilliance beneath it, all the while laughing hysterically.

The Disaster Artist challenges our perception of this unusual figure in film history. The film, based on co-star and frequent Wiseau collaborator Greg Sestero’s novel of the same name, recounts the making of The Room. It opens comically enough: Wiseau gives an impassioned but outlandish performance in an acting class, by the end of which he’s thrown a chair and climbed the stage’s scaffolding. His vigor catches the eye a young Sestero and the two wind up moving to L.A. together to pursue their Hollywood dreams.  In short time they’re unsurprisingly hit with the cut-throat nature of the film industry’s impenetrability, made doubly potent by their lack of talent. This leads them to a revelation: why not make their own film? Aided by Wiseau’s inexplicably bottomless bank account, the two begin work on The Room.

James Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau is nearly flawless. He channels the man so precisely that thinking back on the film I don’t recall Franco’s presence but rather Wiseau himself. This is also because The Disaster Artist never falls into the trappings of parody, making sure that its key characters are depicted as genuinely as possible. While the audience is kept laughing at Tommy-via-Franco’s quirks and mannerisms, they always feels true to his real-life counterpart. He’s relatable, a dreamer driven by an undying passion. Outside of moments where his pretenses lead to poor treatment of those he works with, it’s difficult to root against this embodiment of the prototypical underdog archetype. As the film proceeds, you start to realize that this person you’re laughing at may not be so different from yourself. Then, in its climactic scene, the film turns the audience’s laughter back at them and cements its humanization of Wiseau.

The concluding sequence of The Disaster Artist revolves around the theatrical premiere of The Room. A surprisingly packed theater turns to unanimous laughter as the film’s misfires roll out. We too laugh at the shockingly accurate recreation of the film’s most baffling scenes. Wiseau storms out of the theater in distress at the (to him) unexpected response. In this moment the well-attended theater I was in went silent. We collectively felt the guilt of our mockery as we bore witness to the outpouring of Wiseau’s emotional humanity. As inscrutably dense as he may be, Tommy put all of himself into his craft despite having more passion than talent. He took the initiative that many prospective creatives don’t and tried to make his dreams reality. This man wasn’t deserving of our ridicule no matter how delusional he may be.

With the guidance of Sestero, Wiseau comes to realize that his work’s ability to evoke an emotional response was in itself a success; he’d struck upon the innate goal of filmmaking. When he walks down the aisle to thunderous applause he becomes the rockstar he always wanted to be. He may not agree with the way that others viewed his films but he found contentedness in the joy it brought to them. In tandem, the audience viewing The Disaster Artist realize how important his work has been to them and gain newfound respect for Tommy. We’ll still laugh at the pre-credits reel where recreations of The Room‘s scenes are lined up against the real thing but we’ll walk out of the theater with a changed perspective on its infamous director.

This brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed at the top of this post: is it any less valid a lifestyle to bask in a world of one’s own fantasy as does Wiseau? If one can delude themselves into a sense of heightened self that leaves them at ease, perhaps the most ridiculous way to live is to endlessly wrestle with a less-savory reality. Tommy’s circumstances allowed him to live out his life more frivolously than most of us can manage but we can still learn a lot from his mindset. When we’re lacking motivation for our passions, angry with the deck society has dealt us or otherwise thinking we’re not good enough, remember what Tommy was able to accomplish despite his shortcomings. Take a minute to live in your own fantasy. Consider what efforts you can make to turn it into a reality and act upon them. If you can make somebody else smile then your work will have been worthwhile.

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