STARRING: Tommy Wiseau, Greg Sestero, Paul Scheer, Kristen Stephenson-Pino
WRITTEN BY: Greg Sestero
DIRECTED BY: Justin Macgregor
I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the very first audience test screening of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero’s Best F(r)iends, their first film together after 2003’s brilliantly awful cult classic The Room. Unfortunately, this time director Justin Macgregor’s attempt to recreate the so-bad-its-good formula was so transparent it was simply bad.
The film premiered at London’s Prince Charles Cinema. Long-time friends and fans of Wiseau, the cinema still presents sell-out screenings of The Room and invite the mock auteur along to take pictures, sign scripts and sell merchandise. I happened to catch one of said screenings where I grabbed a pair of Wiseau’s own brand boxer briefs, which he told me had an 80% success rate without a detectable irony when I shook his hand prior to our photograph together.
Wiseau was again present for this test screening along with Sestero, as they would be for the numerous others to follow over the coming weeks. The pair were posing for pictures with fans as I walked into the screen. Sestero cuts a classic semi-well-to-do celeb figure. Well looked after wavy blonde hair, groomed face, a black leather jacket and jeans, and an experienced, practised smile to throw on as star struck Room cultists get under his arm for a picture.
But on the opposite shoulder of the adoring fans stands Wiseau, the enigma, the man who fell to earth. His overzealous camera facing grin is like that of a child handed a sub-par present by a distant relative and forced to look thankful by a mother’s whisper in the ear. The man is as intriguing to look at as it is to hear him speak. Long, seemingly always moist deep black hair down to his shoulders, ever present black sports shades, waistcoat, shirt and tie, and baggy black trousers over industrial boots.
The pair hosted a Q&A prior to the screening which of course Wiseau took the reins of and swiftly cut them loose to the delight of the audience. Sestero could barely get a word in, but he didn’t seem to mind, Wiseau is the money shot. Questions ranged from interest in the script, Wiseau’s directorial reflexes, and whether the pair preferred Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Rogue One. “Neither” Sestero replied, “Same answer, next question” entered and exited Wiseau.
Examining the chemistry of the pair on stage, it’s clear they have a somewhat strange relationship. Sestero appears to be in the same boat as everyone else when listening to Wiseau talk; not sure where to look, visibly clenched, like he’s at Christmas dinner with a senile grandparent who could at any moment go off on a rant about immigration and alienate the room.
“What do you hope the audience will take away from this movie?” someone asks. “Friendship before money” Sestero answers unstoppably tongue in cheek, the audience clap and jeer. He tells us the film was inspired by a road trip up the California coast that the pair took and at the end of which Tommy thought Greg would kill him. It’s not hard to understand why, their relationship must be fraught with tension.
Sestero’s book ‘The Disaster Artist’, soon about to become a movie itself, detailed a much sought after context around The Room and Tommy Wiseau. It told of the pair’s humble beginnings at acting class, their unlikely friendship, Sestero’s adoration for Wiseau’s unflinching character, and most importantly, offered hilarious and damning insight into the vision and process of arguably one of the worst films ever made.
The book painted Wiseau as at all times socially inept, somewhat deranged, but ultimately well-meaning and an unwitting inspiration to Sestero. Unsurprisingly, Wiseau didn’t take kindly to some of the allegations put forward in the book. “40% approve only” he said in an interview when asked if he feels misrepresented by it. “It’s not a question of forgiveness, he knows I’m not happy with it, but what’s done is done. You do hard work and some people don’t know about it and later on they criticise you, they don’t even know about it”. Sadly for Wiseau, Greg Sestero does know, and now so too does the world, and what’s worse is that Wiseau is the only one who doesn’t.
It is unclear to me after watching the film what the pair aim to achieve with this picture, whether it is an attempt to rectify a stained career, embracing said image for monetary gain, to hash out some grievances, or purely to entertain. Whatever their motivation, it speaks volumes to me that the two were not present during the screening, its first one offered to the public. Instead they were in the lobby, continuing to sell and sign merchandise and take pictures with fans who intermittently snuck out to get themselves a copy of ‘The Disaster Artist’ or of the original script from The Room. Perhaps they’re dedicated to their fans, perhaps they didn’t want to forfeit the £15 per seat, or perhaps they’re embarrassed.
Best F(r)iends centres on Sestero’s character Jon Kortina who we pick up at the beginning of the film on a suburban roadside, staring pensively at some lemons in his hands with a bloodied t-shirt and a rather obvious false beard. He drifts around the streets begging for money and taking refuge in cubbyholes around the city until he comes across Wiseau’s character Harvey, who can be seen skulking around Jon prior to their first interaction in his less than inconspicuous white hearse. Harvey sets up work for Jon as an assistant in his morgue where he makes celebrity masks to be placed over the damaged faces of the dead for open casket display.
A stash of golden teeth extracted from what must be thousands of dead bodies that have passed through Harvey’s hands is a quick solution to Jon’s poverty, who discovers he can fetch a pretty penny for them on the underground gold tooth scene. Trust breaks down between the pair after Harvey discovers this betrayal, making clear he keeps the teeth for their sentimental value. This quickly subsides however in the interests of moving the plot along and mistrust reforms in the shape of Harvey’s shady past, new found greed, and Jon’s intrusive love life. Events escalate and reach a rather surrealist boiling point that would have the most abstract auteurs scratching their heads and me wondering who the joke is on.
If it sounds ridiculous that’s because it is, and it wants to be. The film wants to make clear that a more direct comedic approach is being taken, to have the audience laugh with the film, rather than at it, and it appeared to strike the right notes with many in the audience. With dead-pan, emotionless acting as rife as any scene from The Room but a knowing comedic approach it attempts to strike a tonal comic duality. While by and large it is still enjoyable to watch these two together again on screen in whatever capacity, the film’s attempt to deliberately attack the so-bad-it’s-good tone means it circumvents exactly what places The Room at the pinnacle of so-bad-it’s-good entertainment: intention.
Tommy Wiseau intended greatness for The Room, he was reaching for something. Hollywood’s Icarus was no doubt told time and time again to follow a humble flight path, told he couldn’t play the part, couldn’t make the movie; that it would only burn if he tried. Well he did, and it did. But this is the great majesty of the film. It’s bafflingly poor execution of vision, story, acting and production is only excellent to watch because it so naively believes itself a success. Wiseau talks of the film’s cult resurgence as if people came to their senses, not because it was pitied and ridiculed to the point of acceptance and adoration.
“A lot of stuff online about The Room is pretty disrespectful as far as I’m concerned, but I’m very happy camper because I have fans of The Room, and as well you know who I am. So The Room was done, a lot of stuff, intentionally, you know, I wanted to do something special, something different […] Hopefully people will learn that there was a guy who did the movie and everybody hated the movie and suddenly everybody loved it”
Best F(r)iends intended to steal some of that magic and so aims for a strange blend of mediocrity and polish. Director Justin MacGregor, a huge fan of The Room who was also present at the premiere, spoke of what a dream it was to work with Wiseau and Sestero. He offers a clear, crisp visual style to proceedings and solace can be found away from amateurish performances in a rather lush indie aesthetic.
Wide aerial shots of LA set the scene in a polished ode to the senseless panning of the San Francisco skyline in The Room. He certainly did what he could to offer up a tonally diverse picture. Billed as a comedy/thriller there is a constant brooding underbelly that nods towards a layered, looping narrative which makes full use of Wiseau’s eerie persona, even if it does feel at times like he’s being paraded like some three breasted Martian.
However, either directly or indirectly, Wiseau crashes what little attempts for a tight-knit plot driven story there are through his anti-performance, which is great entertainment if the film is a horror show from start to finish like The Room, but in the case of Best F(r)iends that attempts to develop characters and narrative, it is highly frustrating. It’s clear he was given a loose leash throughout the film, there’s really no other way for him to “perform”. But when co-stars appear visibly frustrated by his inability to act it is painful to watch for all the wrong reasons.
Their connection into the underground gold tooth scene Andrei Katsaros (Vince Jolivette) is clearly gritting his teeth throughout his scene with Wiseau, who never seems to know himself what he’s going to do in his next breath. Likewise in a meeting with Jon’s girlfriend Traci Walton (Kristen Stephenson-Pino), a long take allows us extremely uncomfortable, unfiltered access into Wiseau’s incapability to separate himself from a role. Though it is important to mention that this isn’t isolated only to Wiseau, Sestero and StephensonPino are equally flat in their roles. Each emotionless, character conflicting moment drags you away from the narrative until you can no longer see the wood for the trees, which is all well and good, if it didn’t feel like they were actually trying to tell a story here.
Most people familiar with The Room will be happy to see Sestero and Wiseau on the screen together no matter the circumstance, so amongst its cult fan base Best F(r)iends will fare well on general release. For those people it does offer some artistic insight into the relationship of the two and comment on their unique friendship and history. At the very least there are some phrases and jokes lifted straight from The Room to greet you with a wink. Outside of that bubble however this will be a largely confusing, frustrating watch that may bring Sestero and Wiseau some fresh sharp-toothed critics. Perhaps that’s what they want, it’s worked well in the past.
Best F(r)iends will go on general release some time in early 2018.