The Disaster Artist opens with a series of celebrity talking heads attempting to explain their delight and obsession with the cult movie The Room. Their affection is real, but so is the subtext for anyone already familiar with The Room and its bizarre writer-director Tommy Wiseau: These people are expressing enthusiasm about a very, very bad movie. The joke may modulate from maliciousness to bafflement to adoration, but the punchline remains the same.
Tonya Harding is something of a punchline, too, albeit of a less recent vintage. To aficionados of hacky late-night talk-show jokes of the early ’90s, a Tonya Harding biopic sounds like something that should turn up on a DTV double feature with To Buttafuoco Or Not To Buttafuoco. Others may not remember Harding at all. Margot Robbie, who plays her in the new movie I, Tonya, reportedly had no idea when she first read the script that Harding was a real U.S. figure skater who gained international notoriety following a plot to bash in the knee of her girl-next-door rival Nancy Kerrigan. But yes, Tonya Harding is a real person. So, despite the vaporous nature of his backstory, is Tommy Wiseau. Here they both are, human punchlines getting the sorta-biographical treatment and even an Oscar push. Seeing both movies in such close proximity is a strange, compelling experience, like walking into a mirror world where every celebrity receives two hours, a screenwriter’s sympathy, and enough benefit of the doubt to sustain their own biopic.
The strangeness deepens when examining the real-world gendered treatment that allow Tonya Harding and Tommy Wiseau to both wind up as punchlines in the first place, and how that echoes through their biopic treatments. Though the two subjects have decidedly different origins and audiences—Harding being part of a national and tabloid-friendly scandal, Wiseau having accumulated more of a grassroots notoriety—both movies are clearly aware of the novelty status that comes with taking a closer look at real people who have become figures of fun. But while Harding and Wiseau are both acknowledged by their films, accurately, as notorious cultural failures, it’s notable that the real Harding was far more talented in her field of choice than Wiseau in his.
In the years since she was questioned in the attack on Kerrigan and banned from skating for her alleged foreknowledge, Harding’s name has become synonymous with a mean girl who got her comeuppance for messing with a genuine ice princess. So casual observers may be surprised to find that the movie, which recreates and riffs off of real interviews with its “characters,” portrays Harding as only vaguely aware of the plot instigated by her on-and-off lover/abuser Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and even portrays Gillooly himself as not entirely aware of the measures that his delusional right-hand man Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) is willing to take. Moreover, the movie emphasizes that Harding was, for a time, a contender for the unofficial title of best figure skater in the world, something obscured by the white-trash image that some skating judges appeared to disdain.
Wiseau’s primary challenge, meanwhile, was his lack of talent (he seems to have plenty of money). To be fair, he also has the advantage of never being connected with a vicious, ugly attack on a competitor. But it’s still a form of good fortune to be a man whose lack of talent gets rebranded as quixotic and almost noble, even by a movie that purports to make fun of him. Both movies view their subjects sympathetically, but only The Disaster Artist wants to leave you feeling good about it.
In figure skating terms, this means that I, Tonya is attempting something closer to Harding’s signature triple axel, compared to Disaster Artist’s bunny hops. Though Tonya’s fall-from-grace story is relatively conventional, its telling is foxier and more slippery than either the quickie TV-movie treatment Harding received back in the ’90s or the hagiography she might have received had her story ended in Olympic triumph rather than violence and a lifetime ban from figure skating.
Despite downplaying her involvement in “the incident,” I, Tonya doesn’t always let its subject off easily—it makes a recurring punchline out of Harding’s oft-repeated insistence that various setbacks and mistakes were “not [her] fault.” But Robbie is far too winning to play Harding as a fool. She sometimes looks downright heroic, executing her triple axels, facing down her unaffectionate and abusive mother (Allison Janney), and railing, often profanely, against the skating judges and their distaste at her low-income background, rooted in their “old-timey versions of what a woman’s supposed to be.”
The movie goes beyond simply making Harding’s supposedly negative qualities appealing. When Robbie-as-Harding narrates and sometimes addresses the camera, intercut with director Craig Gillespie’s faux-documentary interviews, I, Tonya makes an intriguing spectacle of Harding attempting to wrest her narrative back from other people, a battle that turns out to be more unwinnable than competing against Nancy Kerrigan. Even though Harding’s point-of-view dominates much of the action (that is, what we see on screen corroborates her accounts of Gillooly’s abuse, rather than his interview-scene denials), there’s still a visible struggle for her to maintain it, even in her own biopic. At one point, she fights back against her husband by shooting at him with a shotgun, something Gillooly recalls in a recreated interview. In between blasts she turns to the camera and insists: “I never did this.” It’s a tricky, daring moment, allowing for both the catharsis of Harding’s vengeful act and the acknowledgment of the possibility that these stories were sensationalized.
Depicting this struggle between Harding and her image doesn’t erase failure from her story, or glorify it as a Wiseau-style secret success. Rather, her failure is broadened to include failings of institutions, of bad men and bad parents, and of U.S. class mobility. The movie is occasionally a little self-conscious of this thesis; the filmmakers are obviously satisfied with Robbie’s line about America wanting someone to love but really wanting someone to hate, featured in the trailer. But it’s a lot more nuanced than the shorthand scandal (and accompanying jokes) that made the rounds back in the ’90s, and takes Harding seriously even when she’s getting a laugh. For this movie to work at all, it has to: There’s been a lot less cultural leeway afforded to a brash, scandal-plagued woman than, say, a guy who is terrible at making movies and not terribly bright about his limitations.
Maybe it’s an extension of that gender-norm leeway that allows compulsive experimenter James Franco, who directed The Disaster Artist in addition to starring as Wiseau, to take fewer risks with his own role-playing of failure. Based on the book by Wiseau’s Room co-star Greg Sestero (here played by Franco’s brother Dave), the movie follows timid wannabe actor Greg as he meets Tommy in an acting class and the two move to Los Angeles together to follow their dreams. When Tommy decides that they should make their own movie, he labors over the incoherent screenplay for The Room, and has enough money, of source undetermined, to produce and direct it himself. This is his equivalent of controlling his personal narrative, a (sort of) real-life version of what the onscreen Harding does in I, Tonya, and his personal remodeling, unlikely and incompetent as it is, proves significantly easier. Observing this attempt to rewrite life into a Hollywood dream, The Disaster Artist becomes a sweet-natured but not especially insightful celebration of Wiseau’s oddball accomplishment.
On paper, both Disaster Artist and Tonya seem likely to spark the debate that flares every time the Coen brothers or Alexander Payne make a movie, over whether darkly comic filmmakers are condescending to or exploiting their sometimes-hapless characters. It’s a near-unavoidable byproduct of addressing failure with anything less than the weight of tragedy. In practice, only Tonya walks that tricky but potentially rewarding line. The film does sometimes veer into caricature; how could it not with scenes where Robbie plays an awkward, brace-faced 15-year-old? It also shrugs off depicting Shawn Eckhardt as anything but a comic simpleton, and threatens to turn Harding’s nasty mom into a camp hero just by employing Janney, a wonderful actor, and giving her some blunt lines that have the ring of unvarnished truth-telling, when they’re mostly just bile. But if Gillespie isn’t as sure-handed at mixing sincerity and snark as the Coens or Payne, he’s making a similar gamble on his audience’s ability to recognize foolishness and find some empathy anyway—particularly with Robbie’s Harding, the character who (again, in the movie’s telling) needs it the most.
The Disaster Artist avoids any real confrontation with its subject. While it’s a relief that depiction of Tommy Wiseau, failed artist, and The Room, his failed art, isn’t a sneering bad-movie podcast come to life, it’s also disappointing to see the movie slip into a routine of easy jokes and easier outs. Though Wiseau is portrayed as a crazy person (and the movie may well be downplaying genuine mental illness), Franco engages so lightly with any really troubling or discomforting ideas that his movie contains no real danger of mockery. The only figure of fun is Tommy, who is also eventually treated as an eccentric (if frequently inappropriate and tone-deaf) dreamer.
That’s not to say that the movie should have eviscerated its subjects, and Franco does make some sweetly optimistic points about failure: If Wiseau made an absolutely terrible movie that nonetheless has brought a lot of people verifiable happiness, did he fail at all? Maybe, it implies, he deserves to get in on the joke, too. But the way Franco brings this stuff home—an electric crowd reaction at the first Room screening, affirmations of friendship—doesn’t hit hard emotionally or satirically, maybe because it feels secondhand. Franco either wants to evoke the kind of joyful failure poetry seen in movies like Ed Wood and Bowfinger or is flatly unaware that those movies got to his subject first. Either way, his film doesn’t threaten their status as the best depictions of bad-movie alchemy.
The Disaster Artist is funny, entertaining, and makes a sincere attempt to explain what the hell happened with The Room. But it’s quick to validate the failure at its center in a way that mirrors Wiseau’s accelerated turnaround from loser to ironic hero to symbol of genuine hope. Tommy Wiseau may be a terrible filmmaker (and judging from his terrible movie, some kind of misogynist), he may be ill-tempered and unprofessional, he may be a genuinely troubled or tortured individual, and he may be too shady to offer up details about himself as basic as his age... but, the filmmakers counter, we really like the bad movie he made! Why interrogate further? Perhaps because its subject has been marinating for a solid decade-plus longer, I, Tonya gets at something thornier and more interesting. It knows that as a woman, Harding’s image mattered (and still matters) more than that of her male counterparts, regardless of field. It also implies that on some level, the supposedly hateful failings of Tonya Harding actually reveal what breathless observers have been trained to place into a narrative and hate on sight—or even what they might hate about themselves. The Disaster Artist offers up a failure we’re all invited to feel good about; I, Tonya presents one that we can share. They almost sound like the same thing, but only one has a punchline that sticks in your throat.