Hands up who guessed Best F(r)iends would be a metaphysical exploration of the self combining Bergmanesque existentialism and Hitchcockian genre tropes?
Country: USA | Director: Justin MacGregor
Starring: Greg Sestero, Tommy Wiseau, Kristen StephensonPino, Paul Scheer, Vince Jolivette
Solitary mortician Harvey (Wiseau) offers homeless drifter Jon (Sestero) an opportunity to get back on his feet with a steady job in his funeral parlour.
Revisiting dynamics that inadvertently achieve ironic success is seldom a successful exercise. A lack of self-awareness is crucial to the appeal of good bad movies. However well intentioned they may be, sequels to the likes of Samurai Cop and Birdemic simply don't work. To have any chance of recreating accidental appeal deliberately, you need to have observed it both up close and from a step removed, and you must seek to cover new ground. That those rules have been defined at all is largely thanks to Greg Sestero, the actor who was, until recently, widely known as, “oh hai, Mark”. His screenplay for Best F(r)iends attempts to capitalise on Wiseau's curious appeal and the chemistry the two share, but in no way is it an attempt to make The Room 2. This is a proper film that plays with one of The Room's most appealing elements.
"My goal is to make people happy, especially when they die.”
The successful handling of Wiseau was always going to be crucial to Best F(r)iends' appeal, so let's get that issue out of the way by addressing it first. Sestero clearly understands that the way to exploit Wiseau's entrancing screen presence is to place him within an ordinary context, give him the sort of dialogue he would write for himself and, crucially, avoid over-exposing him. The screenplay is judged perfectly in those respects, and the result is revelatory. Without knowing for sure how mindful Wiseau is of his own peculiar inflections, it's hard to say for certain how accomplished his performance is. But my gut feelings are that he's very mindful, and that his portrayal of Harvey is far more self-aware than his turn as Johnny in The Room. It's also funnier, which leads to two unexpected conclusions: audiences will probably laugh with him more than at him; and Tommy Wiseau has given a legitimately good performance. A very strange performance, no doubt. And I'm not saying he should tackle Chekhov next. But Best F(r)iends demonstrates something that, with hindsight, seems obvious: Wiseau is a character actor. His style is far too idiosyncratic for him to play the conventional lead. But, benefiting from a strong script, appropriate screen time, a suitable character and a good director, he nails it. Based on this performance he could be great as the sort of off-key villain Klaus Kinski frequently played, or in the darkly wacky supporting roles Tom Waits has made his own. I recently had a vision of him playing Dr Strangelove on stage, it would be extraordinary.
Sestero's talents as an author don't just lie in identifying, and writing to, Wiseau's strengths, he does the same for himself. Aside from The Room I've only seen him act in Retro Puppet Master (1999), and neither performance is what you'd call promising. But Jon is a far quieter character, more reactive and internalised. We spend a lot of time silently watching him, and Sestero is able to convey great detail via subtle reactions and mannerisms, something I bet he hasn't been given much opportunity to do in the past. There's a sense of depth, as if there's a lot going on that we don't know about. And, intriguingly, it's as if Jon admires Harvey for being the things he is not: fearless, successful, gregarious and so on. I say intriguingly because I get the sense from Sestero's book, The Disaster Artist (which details his early relationship with Wiseau), that all this reflects the original real life dynamic between the two. And other elements seem familiar: the way Jon's girlfriend is suspicious of Harvey, the way Harvey places so much trust in Jon without any hesitation, etc.
If you have any specific expectations as to the tone and style of the movie, you should leave them in your pocket. It starts with a dialogue-free sequence in which we follow a badly beaten, and apparently bereft, Jon as he aimlessly wanders the streets. Director Justin MacGregor seems to be a perfect fit for the material, with he and Sestero singing from the same hymn sheet. There's a melancholy vibe and indie cool camerawork that's simultaneously stylised and understated. Plot comes slowly, with mood trumping narrative for the first half of the movie. We drift along in a manner that might seem unfocused if you're expecting something different. But after a turning point in which the two characters bond, the intensity builds and a noirish double cross scenario comes to the fore just when it needs to.
Because Best F(r)iends is so unlike anything I was anticipating, it's tempting to try and describe what fans should expect via comparison. The ominous air that accompanies the opening sequence is very like the start of Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin. We're shown things that traditionally require an explanation (in this case Jon is bloodied and bruised), and the lack of information is unsettling. But there's also a portentous pressure that suggests worse is yet to come. Gus Van Sant comes to mind with Sestero's quiet, naturalistic presence. Quite how a crazy Polish vampire is going to fit into this early scheme isn't clear until it happens. Harvey vaguely suggests the sort of discordant, unknowable minor characters that lurk in the shadows of David Lynch's movies, and as the relationship between he and Jon develops, the question of duality is raised. We seldom see them with other characters, and a woozy, dreamlike vibe makes you believe a Kafkaesque reality switcheroo could be on the cards. That intensifies the Lynch element and brings to mind identity-blend movies from Bergman's Persona to Fincher's Fight Club. But, increasingly present (and welcome), is Hitchcock, and Hitchcock-influenced movies like A Simple Plan and Les Diaboliques. But there's little I can say about that without giving the game away. In the manner we learn about the characters one piece at a time, and the general pacing, the influence of TV shows like Fargo and True Detective is also there (although it didn't occur to me until Sestero mentioned it). Weaved into the fabric of the whole is that dreaminess. It's like a veneer of magical realism, and it allows for some beautiful touches like Harvey's enormous collection of 'mouth stuff' (gold fillings and other tiny trophies retrieved from the corpses he handles), and the absurd financial value it commands.
Best F(r)iends would seem to have a good chance at success. It comes off like the sort of quirky-but-not-too-quirky indie movie that could be a sleeper hit, and it will doubtless benefit to some extent from an inbuilt fanbase and the media profile the film adaptation of The Disaster Artist is likely to develop. Whether or not devotees of The Room will get onboard with its vastly different sensibilities is another question. But to have simply trotted out 90 minutes of fan service would have been a crime. This is just the sort of film MacGregor should be directing, Sestero should be writing, and that both he and Wiseau should be appearing in.
(Unlike most of the movies covered on this site, Best F(r)iends isn't a big sack of shit, so there won't be negative scores or an accompanying video laughing at it. I should also emphasise the version I saw is a work in progress that's still being tinkered with.)
Check out my interview with Greg Sestero here.
Video: Exclusive Clip from Best F(r)iends
Summit Pictures/Roguescots/VoVo Productions