Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece redefined “so bad it’s good,” as he continues to ride the wave of its dubious success today.
I was a latecomer to The Room, not seeing it for the first time until 2010, long after its initial, extremely short-lived theatrical release and then its designation, spearheaded by, among others, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Paul Rudd, as a genuine pop culture oddity. I only had some vague idea of what it was about (and its off-putting poster art, featuring it’s Kubrick-staring writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau, offered no clues), but I was also a fan of cinematic endurance tests and thought that I should see what the big deal was.
We went to a midnight audience participation screening, where the bored-looking usher handed out plastic spoons. Not knowing what the spoon was for, I simply clutched it and missed the opportunity to lob it at the screen with the rest of the audience the first time an unexplained framed photograph of a spoon appears during the movie. I still had the spoon in my hand when we left the theater afterward, a little stunned, still processing whatever the hell it was we had just seen. It felt like we had just been through a bad movie hazing, the kind that separates the real ones from the amateurs. Plan 9 From Outer Space? Howard the Duck? Please. Child’s play. The Room is a movie in which the R&B slow jam playing during one of several interminable sex scenes starts skipping, and nobody fixed it.
Learning more about what went into the creation of The Room only makes the whole thing that much more baffling. The essential text is, of course, The Disaster Artist, written by Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s co-star, line producer, and possibly his only friend. Even then, much of what Sestero writes is speculative – no one can seem to agree on where Wiseau got the funding to make and promote the film, where he’s from, his real name, or how old he is. It’s not even clear why the movie is called The Room, except perhaps because it was originally written as a play set in a single room.
The story, supposedly inspired by actual events in Wiseau’s life, went through numerous rewrites, first as a play, then, unbelievably, a 540-page novel, then a screenplay originally much longer than the final version. With that mysterious funding, Wiseau went full steam ahead making a movie, even though the extent of his knowledge about filmmaking began and ended with knowing where the “on” button is on a camera. With everything else he had to be carefully walked through it, both by Sestero, who didn’t have much filmmaking experience himself, and script supervisor Sandy Schklair, who stepped in for Wiseau so often that he later demanded a directorial credit (although, as Sestero pointed out in his book, that would have been like “claiming to have been the Hindenburg’s principal aeronautics engineer”).
To watch The Room is to engage in a cinematic scavenger hunt. Try to keep track of how often the frequent lapses in action are filled in with panoramic establishing shots of San Francisco, even though the setting is irrelevant to the plot (such as it is). Note how often a potential subplot, if not an entirely new character, is introduced without further mention. Don’t take a drink every time Wiseau, playing tragic leading man Johnny, starts or ends a sentence with an odd little laugh, because you will die of alcohol poisoning. The truly remarkable thing is that, by all accounts, every glaring continuity error, every subplot that’s dropped like a hot frying pan, and every inscrutable line of dialogue seems to have been quite deliberate on Wiseau’s part. He would often be told that he was making a mistake, such as wasting money by shooting both on film and video simultaneously, but insisted on doing it anyway. Whatever concerns Sestero, Schklair, or the rest of the crew had about a subplot, line, or shot that didn’t make sense, Wiseau consistently ignored them, and refused to explain why he wanted it that way. This incoherent mess was a singular vision that Wiseau attempted to sell as-is to Paramount, which turned him down immediately.
But Wiseau got the last (creepy and inappropriately timed) laugh, because The Room has remained a part of the pop culture zeitgeist for far longer than The Core, Marci X, or anything else Paramount released in 2003. When’s the last time you heard anyone quoting lines from Dickie Roberts: Child Star? Wiseau has changed his story about what kind of movie he intended The Room to be several times, eventually settling on a black comedy (which it is not), but regardless he’s proud of its dubious success and even more dubious legacy. Whether he’s proud because he thinks it’s a genuinely good movie remains unclear, even two decades later, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Either way, he’s famous, in the same “what do these people do again?” way that the Jersey Shore cast was.
While Wiseau has parlayed the success of The Room into selling Tommy Wiseau-branded underwear through his website (each order comes with a signed copy of the same acting headshot Wiseau has been using for over 30 years), follow-up features have been slow coming. With his typical inconsistency, Wiseau has announced at various times over the years a sitcom (which briefly came to pass with the atrocious The Neighbors, found in the darkest corners of Hulu), a drama about housing foreclosures (presumably Adam McKay beat him to the punch with The Big Short), and a vampire movie (oh god, if only). He’s finally making his long-awaited (?) return to directing this year with the film Big Shark, though it remains to be seen whether it will land with the same impact as The Room. Judging by the incomprehensible trailer, which does feature a shark but also a lot of boxing (and underwear), Wiseau has made a studious effort not to improve as a filmmaker.
But why should he? Thanks to The Room’s cult film status he’s made a fruitful career just by being “Tommy Wiseau,” possibly an alien wearing human skin. All that job requires is showing up to screenings wearing his signature heavy metal bullet belt and providing garbled non-answers whenever he’s asked about the many capital-c Choices he made during filming. He’s a professional weirdo. I say with a total lack of irony that it’s nice work if you can get it, and perhaps the ultimate modern American success story.