Despite dominating the cult horror circuit (and even breaking wholeheartedly into the mainstream thanks to last year's Academy Award nominated The Disaster Artist) for the past 15 years, the acting-directing duo of Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau have only just re-teamed for a new movie with Best F(r)iends: Volume 1.
A two-parter chronicling the friendship of Harvey (Wiseau), a mortician with a stockpile of gold teeth taken from corpses, and Jon (Sestero), a drifter who comes in the mortuary looking for a job, the project sounds like it has a set-up perfectly designed to revel in the absurdity of Wiseau's larger-than-life persona. However, the film is rather a clear attempt to break away from the mould which has defined these creatives for nearly two decades now, and the end product is all the better for it.
In the first volume at least, Best F(r)iends keeps references and influences from The Room to a minimum, allowing these new characters - and this plot as a whole - to succeed without relying on past successes. There's still humour to be found (intentionally so, with only a few of the scripted gags falling a little flat), but the film is a far darker beast than the cast's previous work. In fact, the new uneasy tone is evident from the very first scene, with Jon waking up in a shirt caked in blood, its origin a secret from viewers.
There's genuine tension throughout, something which the surprisingly atmospheric cinematography effortlessly conveys. The movie uses the underbelly of L.A. as its backdrop, and the sickly sense of paranoia and violence bubbling under the serene streets is always present in the contemplative photography and at-times surreal editing. It's a backdrop that isn't exactly novel to Best F(r)iends, but that doesn't take away from just how much L.A. feels like an encompassing character in this movie.
This uncomfortable style works to facilitate the movie's more overtly weird tendencies as well. While the eccentricities might seem as though they're played for laughs - after all, the project is billed as a black comedy - it comes across more like straight horror. Whether intentional or not, strange, memorable choices like Wiseau's wardrobe, the fact that a glowing ATM machine holds all his gold money or the outright nightmarish ending results in a pervasive uneasiness throughout. Combined with the overall artificiality of the sets and characters, Best F(r)iends: Volume 1 wouldn't feel out of place slotted in between episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return.
While the narrative focus is a far cry from The Room's melodrama, the latest movie does cater to fans of that flick in one key way: Greg and Tommy. The two, after all, are the titular best friends, and much of the movie is spent exploring the dynamic between these two characters. For the most part they carry the entire movie, which is great considering the premise lives or dies on how much you invest in their plight.
Fortunately, their relationship is as idiosyncratic as you expect, with a real sense of tragedy at the heart of it. Of course, this on-screen relationship is helped massively by the natural chemistry between the two actors. Wiseau in particular gets to shine during their interactions, and director Justin MacGregor fortunately hasn't attempted to reign in any of the actor's more outlandish affectations. That said, while Wiseau naturally gets a lot of the major laughs, he also layers his performance with a real vulnerability and even an ominous sense of mystery. While writing the script Sestero claimed he attempted to give Wiseau a role to do his talents justice, a goal which he has more than delivered on.
Sestero plays the straight man in comparison to his cast mate, but there's a similarly surprising amount of depth he brings to what could have been a pretty bland role. The film is often at its best when it's just the two of them sharing intimate moments, but both actors can admittedly carry the more dramatic beats as well.
Unfortunately, the direction often can't.
When it comes to capturing the action set-pieces in particular (of which there are admittedly few), the film kind of falls apart. There's ambition and talent behind each of these scenes, but the limited budget rears its ugly head more often than not. Brilliantly, this does award the movie with the same passionate scrappiness that made The Room so endearing.
Another problem is that, by design, this initial volume of Best F(r)iends feels very much like half a film. It doesn't work as a satisfying whole, and ends on an effective, surreal cliffhanger that seems to indicate the best material was left over for movie two. That might pay dividends in the end when the full picture comes into focus, but right now Volume 1 feels distinctly unfinished.
Tommy and Greg's new movie, then, is far more interesting than it could have been. The pair haven't just re-teamed in an attempt to recapture the charm of The Room, but rather used everything they've learned over the past 15 years to deliver something genuinely ambitious and original that doesn't take anything for granted.
Even more surprising, for the most part they've nailed it; the performances are engrossing, cinematography brings the themes to life and the downright amazing original score keeps things feeling tonally cohesive. The central narrative isn't quite as compelling as it could be - and it could all totally be undone by the events of Volume 2 - but there's an endearing nature to even the project's shortcomings that fans would be able to get on board with. The most surprising thing, though, is that non-fans might be similarly inclined to as well.