by Philip Concannon
Who the hell is Tommy Wiseau anyway? That was the question foremost in my mind as I made my way through the dark streets of London’s West End for a midnight screening of The Room. Normally it would take a screening of an all-time classic or a new film by one of my cinematic heroes to tempt me out on such a freezing night, but here I was lining up for a film I knew by reputation only – that is, its reputation as one of the worst films ever made. When I reached the Prince Charles Cinema, it quickly became clear that my ignorance of The Room and its director put me firmly in the minority. The queue, which was already stretching around the side of the venue, was full of people in tuxedoes or wearing neckties around their heads, brandishing plastic cutlery or tossing inflated American footballs to one another. They regaled each other with random lines of dialogue that sounded bizarre or banal shorn of their context – “Johnny’s my best friend!” “I have breast cancer!” “You’re tearing me apart!” Everyone appeared to be in on a joke that I didn’t yet understand.
The Prince Charles Cinema is the home of cult film in London. Many movies have gained a new lease of life via the PCC’s various audience participation events, which were inspired by the remarkable success of the Sing-along version of The Sound of Music. Subsequently, they have staged further Sing-alongs (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease), Quote-alongs (The Big Lebowski, Ghostbusters) and even a Swear-along (Team America: World Police) along with other themed nights such as a Labyrinth-inspired masquerade ball. So it makes sense that a film like The Room would land here, and following its UK premiere at the cinema in 2009 it became a popular fixture in the programme. What made this weekend’s screenings special, however, was the fact that writer/director/producer/star Wiseau would be in attendance, along with co-star Greg Sestero. The excitement among the assembled fans was palpable.
First, some history. The Room emerged from nowhere in the summer of 2003 as an independently financed, self-distributed film and it quickly sank without trace, despite a bizarrely widespread publicity campaign that included a huge billboard in LA bearing Wiseau’s unmistakeable visage. (The billboard stood for four years, becoming something of a local curiosity and tourist attraction) Variety’s review from the film’s disastrous first screening mentions patrons walking out and demanding refunds before 30 minutes had elapsed, but some found humour in the film’s incongruities and general incompetence, and word began to spread about this “so bad it’s good” feature. The phrase “so bad it’s good” is one that tends to put me on guard, as few bad movies genuinely live up to the promise of inadvertent entertainment, but The Room exceeded my expectations and then some. This is a bad movie for the ages.
The Room is a tale of infidelity among a group of close-knit friends. Johnny (Wiseau) is a banker angling for a promotion and deeply in love with his “future wife” Lisa (Juliette Danielle), who has a secret passion for Johnny’s best friend Mark (Sestero). That sounds regular enough, doesn’t it? But there’s nothing regular about The Room, least of all Wiseau himself. Nobody seems entirely sure where this odd character with his straggly black hair and weirdly unspecific accent hails from, or how exactly he put this unusual vanity project together, and he is extremely cagey when such questions are put to him. It has been suggested that he financed The Room by importing leather jackets from Korea, while in another interview he cryptically glossed over budget concerns with the line, “Well, let’s put it this way. I have certain resources. Some people do, some people don’t.” All we know is that The Room cost $6 million to make – Six million dollars. Where did the money go on a film in which the lion’s share of the drama unfolds in just three locations – one of which is a rooftop that’s actually a set with a greenscreen sky horribly added in the background? Still, for sheer entertainment value, maybe it was worth every penny.
Where does one begin with the ineptitude of The Room? Perhaps it’s best to start with the acting, which brings us right back to Wiseau himself. His attempt to play Johnny as just a regular guy is unfortunately stymied by the fact that he looks like a caveman dressed as a 70’s rock star and delivers lines with Walken-like cadences in a heavy, vaguely European accent, often using random bursts of choked laughter as punctuation. The director obviously fancies himself as a romantic lead, however, and so we have to endure sex scenes that involve him grinding away on top of Lisa to the rhythm of a cheesy ballad (“You are my rose, you are my rose, you are my rose” – repeat ad nauseum) before enjoying a post-coital naked stroll. Lisa, manipulative witch (i.e. woman) that she is, also tempts Mark into bed – actually, they only make it as far as the spiral staircase, where they embrace awkwardly while the increasingly uncomfortable-looking Sestero (like a living Ken doll, but with less emotional range) keeps his jeans on.
Had Tommy Wiseau ever seen a film before embarking on the making of The Room? Actually, a more pertinent question might be: had Tommy Wiseau ever seen or heard human beings interact before? The director has stated in interviews that Denny (Johnny’s creepy surrogate son of indeterminate age, played by Philip Haldiman) is supposed to be mentally retarded, but it’s hard to tell when his behaviour is no less inexplicable than the rest of the cast. Why does Johnny and his group of friends suddenly decide to don tuxedoes and play football in an alley? Where did that gun-toting drug dealer come from? Why are two supporting characters sneaking into Johnny and Lisa’s living room to have sex? Why are we told that Lisa’s mother has breast cancer when her illness is never referred to again?
Why is there a framed picture of a spoon in Johnny and Lisa’s house?
The sight of that picture is the cue for The Room‘s audience to launch their plastic spoons at the screen, cheering and laughing as they do so. The film’s longtime fans have running gags aplenty, with cries of “Focus, Todd!” every time cinematographer Todd Barron slips up (which is often) and shouts of “because you’re a woman!” after most of Lisa’s lines, a nod to the script’s casual misogyny. During the scenes in which Wiseau’s romancing plays out to interminable R&B ballads, many audience members swayed from side to side holding their illuminated mobile phones above their heads, and of course, Wiseau’s most memorable dialogue gets a very vocal accompaniment.
“Denny, two is great but three is a crowd.”
“Everybody betrayed me! I’m fed up with this world!”
“Anyway…how is your sex life?”
I can safely say that I have never experienced an atmosphere inside a cinema quite like it, but it was Wiseau’s appearance that really took the roof off; if Elvis had suddenly appeared on stage he couldn’t have received a more rapturous reaction. Clad in shades, a lime green shirt and with a second belt around his thighs, Wiseau certainly cut a distinctive figure onstage, and he appeared to be in his element as he gave his adoring public exactly what they wanted. The twenty-minute Q&A that preceded the screening is one of the nuttiest I have ever sat through, with Wiseau dismissing some questions out of hand while providing bewildering answers to others. When asked what happened to Claudette he replied with, “She is all around us. She is up there; look, can you see her down there?” as he pointed off stage into the shadows. He brought some fans onstage and sung a truncated version of Happy Birthday to them, and then brought up a lookalike to act out a scene with him (the guest, sadly, froze under pressure). Finally, he received cheers for his trademark anguished cry of “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART!” and while the bashful Sestero had to deal with one marriage proposal, he mostly stood quietly in the background and let his director command the stage. This was the Tommy Wiseau show.
As I watched Wiseau on stage I thought of the recent documentary Best Worst Movie, which explores the cult that has sprung up around the notoriously awful Troll 2. In one scene, director Claudio Fragasso attends a Troll 2 screening and is crestfallen that the audience is laughing throughout his film rather than having rediscovered it in the way he intended, and it made me realise that sincerity is a key factor in any truly great bad movie. Wiseau has embraced The Room‘s unique place in popular culture, but he surely made it with the best of intentions and the film acts as a valuable riposte to the recent rash of deliberately schlocky movies that attempt to win an immediate cult following. You can’t create a cult film, and The Room has rightfully earned its passionate following by being a genuinely bad piece of work that offers a uniquely entertaining night at the movies.
And for all those fans wondering how Wiseau will follow his magnum opus, he confirmed during his Q&A that he is planning a sequel. I can’t wait.
Philip Concannon writes about film at Phil on Film