The greatest bad movie ever made." That's what the subtitle of The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero with co-author Tom Bissell (Simon & Shuster, $25.99), calls crackpot director-writer-star Tommy Wiseau's The Room, on which Sestero labored as costar, line producer, and thunderstruck eyewitness. The object of a worldwide cult that's still going strong a decade after the movie's 2003 "release”—it played for two weeks in a single L.A. theater rented by Wiseau, to mostly empty houses until word began to spread that this was no ordinary train wreck—The Room has definitely displaced the previous bad-movie champ, Ed Wood's legendary 1959 Plan 9 From Outer Space, in both notoriety and audience affection. And what a bitter pill for Wood's ghost, since the only superlative he ever earned has been snatched away by an even crazier usurper.
The differences are considerable, though. Beyond his staggering ineptitude, Wood was mainly hampered by a budget barely adequate to running a lemonade stand. Wiseau, on the other hand, sank $6 million into The Room. Early in the movie's daffy, pointlessly costly four-month shoot, one crewmember joked to a bank teller that he was sure his check would bounce. The simultaneously reassuring and unnerving reply: "That account? It's a bottomless pit." To this day, even Sestero, who probably knows Wiseau better than anyone, has no idea where the money came from.
At least in the short run, it all went for naught. A then-fortysomething plug-ugly with hair swiped from Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz and an accent whose intonations were so peculiar that he sounded as if he had a xylophone jammed in his windpipe, Wiseau had a grasp of American idiom and plausible human behavior that left Ed Wood looking like Thornton Wilder. Theoretically, The Room is a standard love triangle between good-hearted Johnny (Wiseau), his treacherous fiancée Lisa (poor Juliette Danielle, mauled like a pet-shop fetch toy in the sex scenes Wiseau insisted on), and his eerily affectless best friend Mark (Sestero). In practice, it's a berserk smorgasbord of ghastly dialogue, cuckoo non sequiturs, inexplicable "I Am The Walrus" sideshows—one famous bit involves the male characters tossing a football around while clad in tuxedos, with neither an explanation of their garb nor any motivation for the scene—and characters who appear and disappear without viewers ever being sure what they were doing in the movie.
The ultimate example is "Steven," who enigmatically shows up near the climax to take over the lines and plot function of another character entirely—Johnny's psychologist pal, Peter, who vanishes from the screen because the actor who'd been playing him was no longer available. Rightly labeling the substitution the "most fascinating" of Wiseau's directorial whuzzats, The Disaster Artist goes on, "You could even say that The Room is about. . . Stevenness, a condition in which things happen for no clear reason, to an unknown purpose, at a fascinatingly inopportune time. Steven completely saves the end of The Room by reminding us how weird it really is."
The odds are awfully good that that's Sestero's co-author engaging in some uncharacteristically transparent ventriloquism. No run-of-the-mill ghostwriter, Bissell is a prize-winning author and regular contributor to The New Yorker and Harper's. His humor, brains, and knack for structure are very much in evidence underneath the ostensible narrator's bemused tone. The book cross-cuts between the hilarious, forlorn tale of the making of The Room—berated by the often locution-challenged Wiseau for trying to "steal show," a bewildered extra asks, "What show am I trying to steal?"—and Sestero's earlier relationship with Tommy, which began when they met at an acting class five years before the latter's Gesamtkunstwerk flabbergasted a blameless world. A Patricia Highsmith rewrite of The Odd Couple, the pair's simultaneously touching and unsettling back story is the kind that seems to augur a gruesome murder, not merely the artistic equivalent—that is, the halcyon moment when Wiseau dreamed up The Room.
Perhaps regrettably, The Disaster Artist ends with Sestero's final glimpse of Wiseau's transfigured face as the lights go down at the premiere. But the almost equally nutty saga of how the movie became a phenomenon—tossing a football for the fans' delight, Wiseau shows up at screenings even now—no doubt deserves a book of its own. Unsurprisingly, nobody's ever asked him to direct another feature, which has never stopped me from daydreaming about the ideal project for him: The Ballad of Michaele and Tareq Salahi. If you recall the superbly strange Salahis, who made headlines in 2009 by crashing a White House reception, you'll agree that only Wiseau—movieland's ultimate gate-crasher—could do them justice.
On a very different note, as we old hands at artful segues like to say, let me recommend—with some reservations—HBO's new documentary Valentine Road, which debuts on Monday. Better known as an actress, director Marta Cunningham has apparently cut a few corners in telling the story of Lawrence King, the transgender 15-year-old who was shot to death in an Oxnard classroom by fellow student Brandon McInerney in February of 2008 after King asked him to be his valentine. Yet the story is riveting anyway, the murder's aftermath even more than what led up to it.
What the movie leaves out, so far as some mighty hasty googling tells me, is that King may have been a bolder and more consciously provocative flirt than the oblivious sweetie-pie depicted in the doc's questionable animation sequences. If he was, that doesn't justify a bullet in the back of the head—though McInerney's lawyers tried to peddle the idea that their client was a victim of bullying and sexual harassment. There is no need to pretend that socialized gayness in adolescence is anything other than a new and weird thing in places like Oxnard to make what happened to King less sad and awful.
Acknowledging that his behavior might have been a genuine challenge to jumpy hetero teens like McInerney would have made Cunningham's doc bolder and more provocative as well. But she's at her best in reminding us that the system failed both of these boys—the right word, after all, whatever glorious sort of Something Else Entirely King might have become if he'd lived. You can be horrified by what McInerney did and still be equally horrified that this 14-year-old was tried as an adult. (Convicted at his second trial after the first one's hung jury parted ways over murder vs. voluntary manslaughter, he's due for release at age 39.) You can be in the tank for Team Larry and still think the school's more "enlightened" faculty botched the job of conditioning the rest of the student body to accept him. It's these intractable (so far, and let's hope not for long) dilemmas—not the heart sometimes all too visible on Cunningham's sleeve—that make Valentine Road more illuminating than even its director may realize.
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