When aspiring actor Greg Sestero first visited Tommy Wiseau’s Guererro Street apartment, he saw a strange collection of books on his acting partner’s shelf. Along with a couple of biographies of his idol James Dean, Tommy’s textual guidebooks included a modest tome called Shower Power: Wet, Warm and Wonderful Exercises for the Shower and Bath. If you don’t know who Tommy Wiseau is, it’s an amusing story. If you do know who Tommy Wiseau is, it’s terrifying.
This is one of many anecdotes that are at once disturbing and hilarious in Sestero’s memoir The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. The book is correctly advertised as the making of an independent movie that has been called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” It is all that, and more.
Fans of The Room, like me, will recognize the Guererro Street detail, and to quote the movie, there’s an interesting story there. But I approached The Disaster Artist with some trepidation. I saw the first live dramatic performance of The Room, whose cast included Wiseau and Sestero among a cast of Washington, D.C. area stage actors. Sestero seemed smug and above it all, pretending to shoot himself in the head at one point during the entertaining train wreck. But The Disaster Artist spells out the stuggles Sestero made to get to that desperate point.
This is the story of a movie, but it is also a bromance, and a moving fable about the struggle to find your voice in a creative world. A twenty-year old Sestero fatefully meets Wiseau in an acting class in San Francisco, where the pair share dreams of stardom. But despite hard work and constant rejection, Sestero’s acting career stalls after the questionable high-point of Retro Puppet Master.
Wiseau’s acting career, as will surprise no one who has seen The Room, fares even worse. Stories of Wiseau’s erratic behavior help one appreciate how difficult it must have been to have to handle the tempestuous star, an underdog with an apparently bottomless bank account that is never fully explained. Sestero worked with journalist Tom Bissell, who wrote one of the more insightful pieces on The Room for Harper’s, and it is unclear what kind of guidance Bissell gave Sestero, but the balance works.
Wiseau’s cinematic exploits since The Room have met with mixed success. At worst, as in the short film “The House that Dripped Blood on Alex,” filmmakers and fans turn up the camp factor and try to make Tommy into a kind of wacky, lovable alien. But The Room is so lovable because Tommy doesn’t have a campy bone in his body. Among the best of the post–Room Wiseau can be found in the web series Tommy Explains it All, which succeeds for the simple reason that it lets Tommy be who he is, unencumbered by someone’s wacky vision of what makes Tommy tick.
Which is why The Disaster Artist works so well. Sestero spells out the many ways in which Wiseau has frustrated and angered him over the years, but none of that takes away from the affection and admiration he has for Wiseau, who despite all odds, believes in his own vision with no self-consciousness and no patience for naysayers. Sestero’s tales of the production of The Room are hilarious, but it is clear that crew and talent alike struggled terribly for what seemed like a lost cause. Miraculously, the movie was completed, and though it took several years for the cult to take off, Wiseau’s investment paid off. The Room went from doomed vanity project to a cult hit that has brought joy to thousands of moviegoers.
There are questions about The Room and Wiseau that Sestero doesn’t or can’t answer: where does Tommy’s money come from? Where is he from, exactly? I can’t say what someone who has never heard of Tommy Wiseau will think of The Disaster Artist — it helps to hear all of Wiseau’s lines as filtered through his curious accent. But I can guarantee The Disaster Artist will bring joy to fans of The Room.