A room of one’s own

Tommy Wiseau’s cult-hit movie assaults the senses with unintended hilarity

Behold: The Orson Welles of crap.

Behold: The Orson Welles of crap.

The way the entertainment business works is this: Sometimes the cream rises to the top. Other times, crap floats. Improbable buoyancy can take you far, in fact: all the way from L.A. to West Sacramento. That’s why, this weekend, the Shiny Object Movies on a Big Screen series is proud to present the latest crap-movie cult phenomenon, a peculiar little feature from 2003 known as The Room.

In recent years, no motion picture has done more to subvert the tyranny of high standards with total ineptitude than this one. There’s bad. Then there’s really bad. Then there’s so bad it’s good. Then there’s The Room. Henceforth, the annals of unintended hilarity will be incomplete without it.

“Described by some as a vanity project gone horribly wrong,” according to the Movies on a Big Screen flyer, The Room is chamber-play melodrama of the lowest order: a stiffly rendered, bizarrely incongruous love triangle between a banker named Johnny (Tommy Wiseau, who also “wrote” the “script” and “directed”), his unaccountably evil fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle) and his bland but actorly best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). Never mind that Johnny comes off as a narcoleptic speed-casualty butt rocker of yesteryear, partial to an uneven black mane of hair and ill-fitting double-breasted suits; he is thoroughly devoted to his Lisa—“I would do anything for my girl!” he memorably insists—and heartbroken when she strays.

Bearing witness to the madness is a pervy but apparently sexually undecided teen-orphan neighbor, Denny (Philip Haldiman), who regards Johnny as a father figure, God help them both. Meanwhile, subplots—Lisa’s mother has breast cancer, Denny has a menacing drug dealer, a picture of a spoon has some kind of hidden meaning—get amputated without anesthesia, apparently just so the fellas can put on tuxedoes, stand way too close together and toss a football around.

It’s the kind of movie that aspiring filmmakers everywhere should loathe for the mockery it makes of all they hold dear. But there is something about The Room that inoculates it against contempt. For all its awfulness (roughly 100 minutes worth, plus hours of haunting flashbacks to be expected after the initial viewing), you just can’t stay mad at the damn thing. How can this be so?

Well, there is the pity factor. The Room is so bad that it’s plainly wrong to judge it on normal-movie terms. For starters—and I swear I don’t mean this in a libelous way—it would seem to have been conceived by a person with both a drug problem and a developmental disability: the awkwardly, mysteriously alluring writer-producer-star-director-perpetrator who calls himself Tommy Wiseau.

You might think he’s just another of those pop-culture hoaxes, like J.T. Leroy or R. Kelly. Or some golem-like manifestation of L.A.’s attention-craving, culturally illiterate degeneration, who stepped fully formed from the La Brea Tar Pits one misty morning to torment us all. Or maybe he’s all our movie critics’ collective nightmare, dredged up from their shared subconscious as self-induced retribution for years of critical overconfidence.

But no, apparently he’s a real guy. I talked to him on the phone.

Wiseau’s origins, like his sources of funding, are shrouded in mystery. His accent makes him sound like a European pretending to be a Canadian pretending to be an American pretending to be a European. But his screen presence registers strongly, for sure. In some ways—well, at least in an experimental-genetics disaster sort of way—you could call him a superstar, with all the un-subtlety and dialogue-delivery issues of Van Damm, Seagal, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, T.J. Hooker-era Shatner, plus sundry generic Eurotrash villains those actors have opposed, all rolled into one.

As such, he’s an uncommon conversationalist. At several points I wanted to stop and ask him, “Are you having a stroke right now?”

“Everything was done intentionally, to provoke the audience,” Wiseau explained early on, reiterating his now-common avowals that he’s been in on the joke all along. “A lot of people don’t think so, but it’s true.” Fair enough, so let’s have an example. “Like when Johnny’s talking to Lisa,” he said. Oh, that part. Of course. “You know, I was thinking, ‘How we can provoke the audience?’”

Indeed, it’s something all the best filmmakers think about. Surely Elia Kazan tackled the same question while directing A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, two of the films Wiseau claims to have viewed more than once. Which is not to say he found them influential: “I inspire myself, basically. I’ve never been influenced by anyone,” he said, and his movie seems to bear him out on that.

Still, perhaps the tidiest overview of The Room’s dramatic architecture comes from an ill-advised homage to Brando’s immortal “Stella!” in Streetcar: Johnny’s now-famous cri de coeur, “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” No written description can do Wiseau’s reading of the line any justice; suffice it to say it is conspicuous—perhaps even timeless, in its way.

Highlights from <i>The Room</i>: Pillow talk; pillow fight; pill overdose, please.

“I like to create,” Wiseau said. “I don’t like to go by somebody else’s formula. I have my own formula.” That much is clear. “Except I admire, like, Citizen Kane, for example.” That’s less clear.

“Acting is something that is satisfactual to me,” he went on. “You can go to different situations and you can feel better about yourself.” It is fair to call The Room an actor’s picture. Heaven knows it’s not a writer’s or a director’s picture. “I prefer acting to directing, to be honest with you,” he said. “But somebody had to do the job.”

Wiseau’s can-do attitude certainly is commendable. Without it, surely, he wouldn’t have gotten the movie made. “Instead of pitching to studios, I decided to pitch myself. It’s pretty unlikely a studio would produce anything I’ve written,” he said. “There’s a lot of rejection.” Eventually, he did submit the film for Academy Award consideration. No dice.

Now, you may be concerned that what we have on our hands here is a true visionary, unfairly shunned by the narrow-minded Hollywood establishment. Consider Wiseau’s further musings: “Some people are not honest with what is in The Room. The Room is relationship. The Room is connection. The Room will eventually open certain doors, but not if you don’t want to see it. That’s what The Room is. The Room is process of learning. It is a red flag, not to do in life, better.”

Hang on, there’s more: “Be careful what you’re doing. Money doesn’t matter. Power? People will hurt themselves. Number of divorces, suicide teenagers skyrocketing. Is it accident? No, of course not.”

So it would seem that Tommy Wiseau has a message for all of us: Sure, he meant it as a joke, but he takes very seriously the duty of his social responsibility.

“In America, we don’t have many places for young people to yell and scream,” Wiseau said. “People don’t realize that people need this to express themselves. The Room gives people this kind of thing. You tell me what is good for a young person: Using drugs or seeing The Room? Or playing football? But if you don’t have a field for playing football, young people can’t do that. You don’t have to be prepared for The Room, but if you want to, don’t forget to yell if you want to yell. Bring a football. To have a good time, to see the movie.”

“Nerf footballs only,” implores the Movies on a Big Screen flyer. “Fans and the uninitiated alike are more than welcome to break out black wigs, sunglasses and ties—just remember to wear that tie askew!”

“He’s just a crack-up, what with his accent and all, saying things like, ‘People like to express themselves and celebrate the movie,’” said Movies on a Big Screen master of ceremonies Robert McKeown, who’s delighted to open his doors to The Room. “[Wiseau] seems to have no idea that what he’s saying is so off, it’s funny. It’s also pretty funny to me how he and his people keep pushing the fact that we have an ‘exclusive’ on the film in Sacramento. Like other theaters are fighting to run it or something.”

They may be, soon enough. Thanks in part to Wiseau’s odd visage looming on a highway-side billboard in Los Angeles for over four years (or maybe since the dawn of history), The Room has found a passionately interactive audience there at monthly Rocky Horror-style screening events.

“Wow, good old The Room,” said Amber Kloss, the highly sociable Sacramento expatriate now living in L.A., who forced some friends into The Room at a local party about a year ago, thereby seeding its Sacramento fan base. “I have to say, after being introduced to this masterpiece it’s become a fun addiction, especially to have friends watch it the first time.”

Kloss admits having taken up the recreational sport of Tommy spotting. “I even saw Tommy a few weeks ago at Whole Foods,” she said. “He was in the health and beauty department, looking at shampoo. I was wondering how he kept those locks shiny and frizz free!”

And of course she sees herself becoming a regular at the L.A. screenings of The Room, which Wiseau hosts. “The audience is pretty solid that comes out,” she said. “You can tell they go to all his screenings, and they heckle the film the whole time—there’s never more than a few seconds of silence during the screening.”

That’s because—besides the writing and directing and acting—The Room has so many riches to offer. The bluescreen simulating San Francisco’s skyline behind a Los Angeles rooftop. The skanky softcore sex-scene footage recycled over and over. The suggested compatibility of scotch and vodka. As Sactowners surely can appreciate, so much about The Room is just plain wrong that it’s all somehow just right.

The Room will be The Room,” Wiseau said. “We can not change The Room. I can not create another Room.” Of course not. And who in their right mind would want that?