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How The Room’s unintentional absurdity hides its dark heart

How The Room’s unintentional absurdity hides its dark heart

Tommy Wiseau in The Room (2003)On the last Saturday of every month, something strange happens at the Laemmle theatre in Los Angeles, CA. A screening is arranged, viewers flock to it and sell it out in almost record time. Diehard fans bring with them what seems to be a selection of provisions for a picnic of a trip to the beach, including plastic spoons and footballs. They are here to watch an eleven year old film which has enjoyed cinema events across the globe, and has made a star of its director/writer/producer/star. Other regular screenings can be found in Copenhagen, Cleveland, Edmonton, Glasgow and London. These too sell out. The Prince Charles Theatre in London proclaims itself the British home of said movie. Its celebrity fans include Alec Baldwin, Paul Rudd, David Cross and Patton Oswald. Her affection for the piece led Kristen Bell to insert various references into her hit show Veronica Mars. An unlikely cross section of entertainers, actors and regular Joe moviegoers are all united by a common love; Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which since its limited 2003 release has become legendary. Not, it should be noted, for the right reasons, since The Room is no masterpiece. In truth it’s not good. Not even nearly.

The cult that is The Room is truly fascinating both in the nature of its existence and the manner in which it came about, given a lease of life by 5secondfilms’s Michael Rousselet, later plucked from obscurity by Comedy Central and now a mainstay meme of modern online culture. Its madness has been celebrated in analysis by the likes of The Nostalgia Critic and Cinema Sins’ ‘Everything Wrong With…’ series. Entertainment Weekly was moved to describe it as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”, while The United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper aptly summarized it as a mixture of “Tennessee Williams, Ed Wood and R Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet”. Lines of dialogue are regularly quoted out of context in the knowledge that somebody listening will know the source. It has taken on a life of its own, belying its independent origins and modest (read financially disastrous) initial release, and turned Wiseau into the most unlikely of internet sensations.

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At the centre of all of this is the mysterious Wiseau, a gaunt and long haired figure with the enunciation of Walken and the quasi-English of Benigni, who somehow drummed up six million dollars and promptly poured it in to a project of love which is the picture perfect representation of low rent production. Where he comes from is unknown, aside from allusions to routes in New Orleans and wild guesses over the origins of his baffling accent, part Jean-Claude Van Damme part Borat. How he was able to waste so much money, or even make it in the first place, is a subject of heated debate. His continuously fluctuating stance on the nature of his movie, whether it’s intentionally ridiculous or simply the 21st Century’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, is rather less ambiguous. With a script stuffed with the bizarre non-sequitur language that interviews and Q&A sessions have revealed to be entirely his own manner of speech, Wiseau set out to make a serious drama and got lost along the way. The mutation of his baby into a subversive hit has naturally dictated his responses, perhaps to play along with the fun or perhaps to avoid further ridicule. This is a wise course, because if one were to stop laughing Wiseau might suddenly seem less amiable.

The unlikely cult of The Room has made Wiseau an ironic star.

The unlikely cult of The Room has made Wiseau an ironic star.

So, what the hell is The Room? For those who have only glimpsed its insanity in YouTube clips and sound bytes, story is not an issue to trouble oneself over. Once one has seen the majesty that is the flower shop scene, or the “Oh, hai, Mark” exchange, there is little else to learn. Luckily, the horrific mal-quality of the film is such that viewing it from start to finish is not the intolerable experience it should be, since its entertainment levels are so high. There are countless moments from which to derive pleasure. Naturally, there’s the dreadful screenplay enhanced by nightmarishly bad acting, but also part of the madness is the incompetence in stage direction, musical accompaniment, set design, editing tricks, sound mixing…everything seems geared to make one laugh. It is hard to grasp the idea that this was ever meant to be something other than hilarious. But beyond this, one can find the actual purpose of the film if one has sufficient patience and immunity to the absurd to find it. Like any other movie, this one has a story, even if it is told badly. More than that, one can also read enough into it to discover a dark, bitter heart that speaks of the fiber of the creator. So intimate in fact that it makes the accidental comedy a boon not just for us but for Wiseau himself. Were it not so funny, it would just be depressing or perhaps even infuriating.

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The story is incredibly basic. Wiseau is Johnny, an illogically successful banker who is perhaps the kindest and most sympathetic man in the world. Not only does he shower gifts and affection on his girlfriend Lisa, he also has apparently ‘adopted’ a young man of dubious age and mental capacity named Denny. He supports both of them financially, loves both of them, in Lisa’s case physically and in Denny’s case through wise and sage advice and fatherly bonding. He has a number of friends as well, but the only one who really matters is his best friend (who is his best friend, his best friend…) Mark (his best friend). They do everything together, which means they throw a football at each other meaninglessly while sitting on the roof of Johnny’s apartment building looking out over a badly lit artistic rendering of the San Francisco skyline, where they discuss life and women and philosophy. Badly. Johnny has the perfect life and couldn’t be happier and couldn’t deserve it any more. So naturally it all has to go wrong, which it does when Lisa starts an affair with Mark for no reason and tears Johnny apart.

This is the basic plot, one that is sufficient for a half hour made for TV special but is stretched out to ninety minutes through the use of repetitive filler and perplexing character ‘driven’ set pieces. Even taking into account Johnny slowly figuring out that his beloved ‘future wife’ (the word fiancée apparently not in Wiseau’s vocabulary), disposable subplots involving Denny and a drug dealer, Lisa’s mother’s troubles (including a bout of breast cancer that doesn’t pan out) and the bizarre tragedy of Michael and Michelle (and his underwears), scenes are rehashed and repeated ad nauseam to hammer home a point, telling us what to think. It means that by the end, we all hate Lisa, all feel terrible for Johnny and when the latter commits suicide, in despair at the betrayal he has suffered, it is like watching the death of Jesus. At least, that’s the intention. Were things not so bafflingly batshit it might be possible to have something approaching emotional connection to this, rather than laughing hysterically at Lisa asking “is he dead?” regarding Johnny’s headshot, motionless body. That register would probably be in the negative however, and had the dialogue been written by someone with a grasp of vernacular everybody would have walked out for different reasons.

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Tommy Wiseau & Greg Sestero in The Room (2003)The Room’s infamous reputation and ironic following are not what posits the movie as an example of the potential perils of independent filmmaking. Instead it is the picture of a bitter man being able to exert full totalitarian rule over a project that presents the strongest cautionary tale. This is the reason why so many cast and crew quit (accounting for much of the budget), and why American actors recite lines apparently consisting of pigeon English. The script’s biggest problem isn’t its bizarre dialogue, penchant for shaggy dog storytelling and ignorance of basic rules of screenwriting; it is its mind numbing lack of subtlety, nuance, balance or complexity. Very few go far enough into such a turkey to spot the fact that clearly Wiseau is telling a story of experience that presents him as the good guy and the girl as evil. It is the worst example of vanity project that one can find. At some stage in his life, Wiseau suffered a painful break up and The Room is his way of getting back at the woman in question, by exposing her as some kind of soulless, meaninglessly sadistic demon rather than trying to understand that these matters are never so simple.

Of course, we’ve all been there and it doesn’t matter how open minded, understanding or philosophical we are, that pain bites deep. To love someone and to be rejected, betrayed even, is one of the harshest experiences imaginable. For a time the only way to survive seems to be hatred, turning that pain into a weapon and pointing it at the perceived cause of said trauma. Eventually, though, one learns to accept the fact that this is done, that things were not meant to be, and that we were holding on to a rose tinted image of what it once was. Even if it still hurts, we have to force ourselves to look at the bigger picture. That other person was unhappy, perhaps due to something we did and are reluctant to accept, and break up was inevitable. Protracted misery for the sake of short term evasion of pain would be the real evil. These are lessons that should be learned in the fledgling days of romance, whether it be puppy love or early adulthood maturity. It requires a level of modesty and humility. Clearly humility is also not a part of Wiseau’s vocabulary because beyond the cheap laughs The Room is his warped account of romantic trauma that places him in the role over utterly righteous victim and the other party as succubus.

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Think about the ridiculous overemphasis of Johnny (clearly Wiseau’s surrogate) as a shining light in the lives of his friends and peers, a genius of banking, a warden of the vulnerable, beloved by all. Even the buddy who is sleeping with his girl seems to be in awe of his goodness. Now think about Lisa; she is essentially a butt-monkey for the screenwriter, depicted as incompetent and utterly unable to support herself, shown to be a sociopath (who else would be unable to love Tommy…er, Johnny?) and even named as such by a conveniently placed psychiatrist friend, only redeemed by her constantly referenced ‘beauty’. She openly states that her only reason for not loving Johnny anymore is because she is bored of him, she throws herself at Mark in undignified manner, and even as she cheats on her ‘future husband’ at his birthday party she lies about being pregnant to “make things interesting”.

Juliette Danielle, Phillip Haldiman & Tommy Wiseau in The Room (2003)Both portrayals, at opposite ends of the spectrum, are insultingly simplistic and bluntly presented. They are born out of a nauseating mixture of ego and hatred. Wiseau wants us to see him as the good guy, and wants us to see that it was all her fault, all hers, and that there was nothing more to it than that. Even the enabler to the betrayal, best friend Mark, is allowed a free pass because clearly Lisa is so evil that he was as much a victim as Johnny was. The fact that the women of the story bear such a passive response to the betrayal also reveals a darkly chauvinistic attitude and paints Wiseau as a man with deeply seeded neuroses. The final suicide is the ultimate in adolescent hysterical immaturity and, in its near messiah complex subtext, a final florid and loathsome display of narcissism.

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It rather puts The Room’s reputation in perspective. Adoring fans lapping up every unintentional moment of hilarity may seem like a form of cruelty, but it has saved Wiseau and given him not just notoriety but also status. When members of the cult celebrate his work, it is with warmth and genuine affection, and as much as they accept that the movie is dreadful they enjoy it none the less in a manner very few filmmakers are able to replicate, to see their baby seen by the world and somehow loved. One should be very wary of feeling sympathy for Wiseau, since it is the awfulness of The Room that saves it, prevents viewers from seeing what was intended which is so much worse than Ed Woodian tripe. For his celebrity status and for missing the bullet of being exposed as an egotistical, neurotic exponent of ill-virtue, he should be very thankful. Oh, hai, infamy.

This has been a Strange Interpretation…

Scott Patterson