As a film buff, I believe, quite firmly in fact, that bad movies have a significant place in the history and culture of cinema. I’ve written occasionally about bad films, or films that are strange and inexplicable, or films that others praise as “brilliant” that I think are fulsome. With such an interest in bad movies I suppose I’m quite slow on the uptake, because I’ve only just seen Tommy Wiseau’s truly terrible 2003 drama The Room, which has been vaunted for 15 years now as one of the worst pictures ever made. Its cult status was more recently cemented by a memoir, recently made into a documentary, called The Disaster Artist, detailing the making of the film (I have not read that book or seen the documentary) [CORRECTION: since originally writing this article I have seen The Disaster Artist and enjoyed it very much]. What I’ve heard often about The Room is what’s said about many bad films, that it’s “so bad it’s good” or “one of the most enjoyably bad movies ever made.” To be totally honest, I found it neither. The Room is a terrible film that is not enjoyable, not fun, not silly or redeeming on any level. Indeed, it’s a dreadfully depressing and nihilistic experience, but it’s worth thinking about, if only as a negative example of how truly terrible fiction can so utterly fail to capture the realities of the human condition.
The “plot” is so thin it could be written on toilet paper. (I refuse to honor a movie this bad with a spoiler warning). Johnny (Tommy Wiseau, the writer and director) is a banker who lives in San Francisco and is planning to marry his girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle). For reasons never explained, Lisa has decided she’s bored with him and won’t marry him, yet she’s curiously reluctant to break it off. She has an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). After a lot of aimless chatter and surly looks by Lisa, at Johnny’s birthday party things come to a head and he discovers her affair with Mark. Utterly distraught, Johnny puts a gun in his mouth and blows his own head off. That’s it. That’s the entire plot, strung out over 99 interminable, bowel-churning minutes.
Witness some of the cunning repartee between Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) and Lisa (Juliette Danielle). This is one of the film’s more coherent scenes, if you can believe it.
In evaluating The Room, one must separate its technical and cinematic incompetence from the total ignorance that it has of even the simplest understanding of human values and reality. The film is clearly incompetently made. Its script and dialogue make no sense. Its set design, especially the eponymous San Francisco townhouse where most of it takes place, looks like nothing so much as the fake mock-up of a living room display in an Ikea furniture store; no one’s house really looks like that. And ever notice that you never see a kitchen? Its editing is choppy, its green-screen effects (trying to pass off L.A., where it was filmed, as San Francisco) are badly done, and the acting would embarrass a second grade Christmas pageant. If this was all that was wrong with The Room, it might be enjoyable on some level. But no; its disease goes much deeper than that, to a very depressing failure to understand why stories work, who they are about, and why audiences should respond to them.
At its root, The Room wants to be a story about victimization and betrayal, but Wiseau has such a shallow understanding of character that it is impossible to feel empathy for anyone on the screen. The film’s narrative is a one-note, simplistic refrain that is darkly demanding and privileged: Lisa is evil because she does not love Johnny. No reason is ever given for why she doesn’t like him anymore, and the screen pairing of Wiseau and Danielle is so bereft of chemistry that it’s impossible to understand how they could have loved each other in the first place. The film seems to equate superficial sex with love. There are four, count ’em, four sex scenes in the movie’s first 25 minutes. None even reach the level of Cinemax late 80s pseudo-porn (or its modern imitators). The film simply assumes that Lisa’s lack of love for Johnny is a transgression. She’s portrayed as relentlessly selfish and shallow, but we have no idea where this comes from. This character trait just exists, like a force of nature. Similarly, Johnny’s “goodness” is assumed and talked about, but never shown.
This terrible scene–badly written, horribly acted, confusingly shot–is just filler in the movie, but it’s a good representation of just how incompetent The Room is on all levels. The dog is cute, though.
Lisa’s as poorly-written a character as anyone else in the film, but The Room seems so disconnected from all its female characters that one wonders if Wiseau ever actually met a real woman before making this movie. Lisa’s mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) confesses casually, in a conversation primarily about how Lisa should marry Johnny, that she (Claudette) has breast cancer. This revelation goes by and is never mentioned again, and for the rest of the film the Claudette character is seen as being in perfect health, preoccupied with shopping and her daughter’s wedding plans. A very good friend of mine died of aggressive breast cancer in 2009, and I can guarantee you that no woman anywhere in the real world would act like this about it–and the throwaway nature of this plot point discloses unbelievable ignorance of how people, especially women, would react to this situation. It’s really unsettling, because it suggests that the ignorance is not contemptuous or actively misogynistic, but casual and unknowing, which is almost worse. What was Wiseau thinking when he wrote these scenes?
Wiseau, indeed, does not even seem to know himself or his own character. At the end of the film he kills himself because Lisa cheated on him. Even setting aside how utterly alien Lisa is as a realistic character, why wouldn’t Johnny rejoice in being free of such a relentless shrew? His pain at Lisa’s betrayal does not evoke empathy–it suggests he’s dumb. Furthermore, every other character in the plot knows, at some point, about Lisa’s affair with Mark, and not a single one of them tells Johnny. They’re all willing to keep Lisa’s secret for her. Why? Do they hate Johnny as much as she does? Or are they just indifferent? Which is worse? I can’t decide, but The Room as a film isn’t even self-aware enough to realize that this conundrum exists.
This is unquestionably The Room’s most famous moment. Reportedly Tommy Wiseau’s performance–and the line–is based on James Dean. That whirring sound you hear is Dean spinning in his grave.
As bad as the film is, it does have value–recall I started this article by stating that bad movies have a place in cinema, and this one does too. It’s a great example of how not to structure a story, how not to write dialogue and situations, and how not to construct compelling characters. In this sense, its best use may be as a cautionary tale, not just for filmmakers, but anyone who creates fictional characters and puts them on a page or a screen. The Room is not enjoyable, fun or funny. It’s a horrendous mess. Celebrating its awfulness, as some have done in a campy Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of way, is like putting make-up on a corpse. Something about this film is truly dead on a human level. In fact, I’m tired of thinking about it, so I’m going to stop writing about it…now.