Book Review: “The Disaster Artist”

James Frazier reviews "The Disaster Artist" by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.“The Disaster Artist” is the story of how the lives of two men were determined by an intense, bizarre friendship. Readers, of course, will flock to this book expecting the inside story of the making of “The Room,” the 2003 cult film that ranks among the most dreadful, unintentionally hilarious movies ever made. Those searching for humorous and thoroughly detailed production anecdotes will be thrilled, but the book, by “The Room” co-star Greg Sestero with Tom Bissell, also supplies the reader with a human drama that’s compulsively readable, a tale of men whose bond allows them both to stumble their way into cinema history.

The book splits the narrative into alternating blocks, one with Sestero telling the story of how he, a model and aspiring actor, and “The Room” star/writer/director/producer/financier Tommy Wiseau became close, the other beginning with production on the movie doomed to be a cult hit. As bad as “The Room” is on an unironic level, Sestero suggests that the movie doesn’t do Wiseau’s shortcomings as a thespian and filmmaker justice; the shoot is, from the start, surreal and even nightmarish, with the would-be auteur depicted as an ego-maniacal half-lunatic with a limitless bank account and a millimeter long fuse.

Sestero, a handsome twenty-something model, and Wiseau, a gaunt, apparently middle-aged man with long hair dyed jet-black and a thick accent of an indeterminate origin, meet in an acting class. They become scene partners and pals after Sestero is inexplicably drawn to Wiseau’s fearless, dreadful acting, while Wiseau eagerly welcomes the companionship of this All-American boy, whom he sees as part-buddy, part-protégé, part-partner.

The cast and crew are rendered succinctly, their commonality being that they’re all trapped in “The Room,” an outlandishly foolish but well-paying film project from the oddest corner of hell. The production is a checklist of How Not To Make a Movie: An utterly nonsensical script, excessively wasteful spending (Wiseau commissions himself a $6,000 private bathroom, sans door), strange tight-fistedness (Wiseau refuses to spring for a cheap, essential generator), heinously poor crew management (a number of initially mellow and patient individuals are driven to total exasperation), and a lead actor/writer/director incapable of performing any of those duties to the level of a bright preteen.

Stories of strange misadventures abound, both of the on and offset variety, virtually all of which spring from the vast well of weirdness that is Wiseau. His unusual behaviors range from charming (bad acting with fearless gusto) to amusing (Wiseau’s hideously poor restaurant conduct) to surprisingly off-putting (he uses his resources to manipulate and even emotionally terrorize those he fears are “betraying” him). One of the authors’ most impressive accomplishments here is that these stories, told in the alternating narratives, are skillfully aligned congruently, in the process organically illustrating how much of the film and Wiseau’s public image came to be.

An account of Wiseau’s personal history, which the authors acknowledge may or may not be wholly accurate thanks to the anti-auteur’s proclivity for exaggerations, falsehoods, and omissions, is particularly intriguing. It tells of a man from Soviet-era Eastern Europe who survives appalling experiences to achieve the American Dream of financial success, while grasping futilely at meaningful relationships and artistic excellence. If Wiseau didn’t engender sufficient pathos in the reader yet, his background should do the trick, giving the man depth that makes his outrageousness seem less like sin and more like a cry for respect.

Interestingly, the stories take turns into decidedly dark territory, with much of the latter half of the book focusing on Wiseau’s mental anguish and how it slowly corrupts his and Sestero’s friendship. In this tale of unconventional success is the story of Hollywood rejects, the struggles of the nearly-were and never-was. Sestero’s candid admission of weakness and self-doubt makes for compelling inner-turmoil; he balances his affection for the man who generously encouraged his dreams with the growing awareness that Wiseau’s idiosyncrasies could have an insidious bent.

But this is, at its heart, a somewhat optimistic story, albeit one where success is only possible by gauging the result, a film adored by millions, instead of the reason, which is through catastrophe. While the authors make the subtle case that Wiseau enjoys his work’s notoriety because it affords him the admirers he always wanted, there’s the touching reassurance that, despite what went wrong, his most important relationship turned out right. Both film and book succeed as comedy, but where “The Room” completely failed as an insightful, touching drama, “The Disaster Artist” succeeds.