You’re terrible, Tommy, but don’t change a thing

The Daily’s Gavin Thomson on the cult appeal of The Room

This is the idea behind The Room (2001), a cult classic deemed “The best worst movie ever made.” Tommy Wiseau, who plays Johnny, is in love with his girlfriend Lisa. They plan to get married. Lisa, however, is in love with Johnny’s best friend, Mark. They have a lot of sex. Eventually, Johnny finds out. Then something bad happens. Throughout the film, Johnny spends time with Denny, an orphan he takes under his steroid-replete wing. And Lisa spends time with her mother, Claudette, and her best friend, Michelle. It’s set in San Francisco.

The Room is an anomaly. It does not fit into any genre. The strange figure behind the movie is Tommy Wiseau. Along with other mysteries surrounding his biography, Wiseau claims to have grown up in New Orleans, even though he speaks with a vaguely Eastern European accent. The only explanation behind how he managed to individually raise six million dollars in order to direct, produce, and star in The Room, after he had already written the script for it, is that he imported leather jackets from Korea. Originally, Wiseau intended to make the movie a drama, and it was advertised as such. But once it became clear that it made people laugh, it was renamed a “Quirky new black comedy…with the passion of Tennessee Williams.”

But this description also fails. There is no way to sum up The Room. It simply does not make sense.

It is not that the acting is horrendous (Wiseau and company perform like Subway’s Jared Fogle in a game of charades), or that the plot is worse; no, there is something inscrutably pathetic about it. In one scene, for example, Lisa asks Johnny if he was promoted at work. Johnny says, “Nah.” Lisa, always quick with a response, says, “You didn’t get it, did you?” She is not being sarcastic.

And this is the way the movie moves forward: half-logically, half-hysterically, droning along tediously forward like an absent-minded doodle across a blank white page. The entire film is based on one love triangle, one problem, and one collective relationship. As soon as it builds a tiny bit of tension, it repeats, and the tension dissolves silently in the repetition. If a hint of the outside world seeps through, it turns out to be a time-filler, and is never brought up again. If a character says something remotely interesting, the response is monosyllabic. Sometimes it’s just a laugh. Mark: “I used to know a girl, she had a dozen guys. One of them found out about it…beat her up so bad she ended up at a hospital on Guerrero Street.” Johnny: “Ha ha ha. What a story, Mark.”

Yet the film is remarkably engrossing. Watching it, I had the feeling that something great was taking place. Partly, I think, because the film is utterly original. No one else could ever create a movie this bad and this hilarious. There is a conspiracy theory surrounding The Room, that the film is an elaborate joke staged by some prominent Hollywood director. Watching the movie, though, there’s an earnestness to it that negates this possibility – not in the way some American Idol hopefuls appear to actually think they are good singers, but in a way all by itself. The movie is so pitifully sincere it seems like the product of an ethereal spirit or an unknowable alien. The plot was so basic, the dialogue so bad, that it was not basic at all: it was a-basic. What makes this bad movie so good? How can bad be good? Why was watching The Room the best movie experience I’ve ever had?
For one, I’ve never been to a movie that people were so enthralled to see. The Room played in a small room at 5080-A St. Ambroise, and it was just as much a party as it was a screening. Organizers Dan Ahmad and Denise L’Hirondelle did an excellent job of raising spirit and telling newcomers what to do. Whenever there were spoons in the movie, which was quite often (Johnny’s house is decorated with paintings of them) everyone yelled “spoon” and hurled plastic ones at the screen – about 12,000 in total, according to St-Ambroise’s Facebook group. About half the audience had memorized a significant portion of the dialogue, and knew what to say or when to scream on cue. When the camera panned the Golden Gate Bridge, as it frequently did, there was a chant of “Go! Go! Go!” Whenever there was a sex scene, the chant was: “Unfocus! Unfocus!” (Tommy Wiseau naked is indistinguishable from a dehydrated, beached whale). There was never a silent, spoon-free moment.

The Room has recently become an Internet phenomenon, attracting fans around the world. Yet screenings are rare – most take place in Los Angeles and, oddly, Montreal. At the screening there was a sense of camaraderie between the cult followers, as there is at Rocky Horror Picture Show productions and Star Wars conventions. Like other cult classics, The Room attracts a group of young, dedicated fans who form a kind of subculture. What most separates them from other cult groups is their deep enjoyment for ironic entertainment and sarcastic humour.

To appreciate a movie such as The Room is to appreciate those things that movies should never be. The Room is the anti-movie. As Warhol changed art by discarding its most tacit rules, while maintaining the surface appearance that he hadn’t really done anything new at all, The Room discards all movie standards and conventions, by doing everything all generic movies have done before, and does them much, much better. The movie is not just a poor copy of an old film; it copies such films’ failures and carefully avoids falling into their strengths.

Thus The Room begins with no bases, continues without substance, repeats with nowhere to go, and ends with, well, the best movie experience I’ve ever had. I will never call it art. Tommy Wiseau is an unintelligent man-child with an incomprehensible need to see himself naked and hurt. Yet, what he has given to this world is something very, very special.

The Room is playing again on February 27th at the Centre St. Ambroise (5080-A St. Ambroise). It’s beyond my recommendation.