Have You Seen The Room? (the movie that’s tearing us apart, lisa)
When I exited the Coolidge Theater in Boston last Saturday, I decided that the world is divided into two groups of people: those who have seen Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus The Room and those who haven’t. Heralded as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” this cult phenomenon has been entertaining diehard fans at midnight screenings for seven years. In the vein of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, seeing the movie is a theatrical experience involving both premeditated and spontaneous audience participations that results in a raucous atmosphere that no words can do justice to.
If you’re confused, don’t feel too bad. The Room‘s original run time was only two weeks in two L.A theaters back in 2003. Audiences could barely make it through the movie. Thankfully, Patient Zero – Michael Rousselet, recognized The Room for it’s “so-bad-it’s-good-no-make-that-brilliant” quality and spread the word to his friends of similar (bad) taste. Screenings have since been shown with regularity at Laemmle Sunset 5 in L.A, but other than that seeing The Room in the rest of the country is a rare and special occasion. But, trust me, once you’ve seen it, you’ll enter into a community that is more pervasive than you might think. It’s kind of like when you thought you were the only one who watched Degrassi: The Next Generation (it goes there).
Not that it matters, really, but here is essentially what The Room is about: Wiseau plays Johnny (because he is not just the director, producer and writer, he acts too – oh, yes), who is engaged to Lisa, who has grown bored with him despite his Harlequin-esque romance tactics and financial support, and starts an affair with Mark who – lest you forget – is Johnny’s best friend. There are half a dozen subplots that are introduced and then promptly forgotten by the end of the scene, or even the conversation. Not to mention a handful of supporting characters who flit in and out of the main “plot” with inadequate explanation or follow-through. Toss in laughably bad acting, terrible camera work, poor lighting, a heaping spoonful of misogyny and a number of gratuitous Skinemax-worthy sex scenes and, in a nutshell, you have The Room. It’s just one of those things you have to see to believe.
So what, exactly, is the appeal here that sells out theaters? It can’t just be the entertainment value of watching such a terrible movie can it? Well, yeah, it can. (But there’s more!) While Wiseau now claims the hilarity of his clunker was intentional, it’s all too clear that he was seriously trying to make a masterpiece here. (He submitted it to the Academy Awards without success.) Wiseau raised $6 million and changed crews three times to protect his vision, so be sure that the product is authentic. So, to watch the result in which every aspect fails terribly on all accounts is just so deliciously entertaining and speaks to the bully in all of us. But what I think is really the odd sort of appeal with The Room is it’s actually pretty heartbreaking, and fascinatingly so.
It doesn’t take long for it to become obvious that Wiseau is so utterly clueless about so many things (filmmaking being the obvious one) but has so much passion and naive optimism about them anyway that he becomes a sort of pathetic hero. If you don’t get too carried away with laughing at the movie and pay attention to it for what it is, you learn some pretty devastating things about Wiseau and, in the end, isn’t that what attracts us to art?
First of all, the writing and directing show that Wiseau is a very lonely man. His attempts at portraying realistic human interaction rely on dated stereotypes because he doesn’t know any better. Male bonding is a series of complicated handshakes and tossing the ol’ pigskin around. Dating is the man buying her flowers and dresses out of the blue. Conversations are heavy-handed and unnatural. Dirty talk and insults alike are strange and dispassionate. The world of The Room is some imagined reality of Wiseau’s, conjured up out of speculation while he spent his life in solitude.
And, let me tell you, he is pissed about it. The whole script reads like some kind of revenge fantasy slash suicide note. (Remember Michael Scott’s screenplay in The Office?) It’s too clear that Johnny and Tommy are the same and he’s using the movie to live life how he wished it had really happened. Johnny is written to be a perfect person, and even though every other character endlessly praises him, most of them still betray him. Lisa is the archetypical bitch, a portal to pour all frustration into. When Johnny yells his most famous lines (“I’m done with this world!”) or randomly waxes philosophical (“the world would just be a better place if we all loved each other”) you can’t help but feel chills knowing that it’s really Wiseau speaking, and you feel for him.
It is this combination of cruel mockery and sympathetic voyeurism that is so intoxicating. While many people may not be conscious of the latter, it is the draw that has been pulling people in for seven years and there is no sign of it stopping. And why should it? Somehow, this piece of crap manages to speak volumes about humanity. As word-of-mouth grows, The Room may prove to be unstoppable. And you know what? It’s pretty nice that Wiseau is getting his in the end.