The Room (2003) -**
For five years, on the west side of L.A.’s Highland Avenue, a bit north of the intersection with Fountain Avenue, there stood a billboard depicting the face of a very strange-looking 40-ish man, gazing drowsily down at the passing traffic. The gigantic sign was an advertisement for a movie called The Room, but the vast majority of the people who passed beneath it from June of 2003 until the fall of 2008 surely had never heard of the film otherwise. The Room’s original theatrical run lasted for all of two weeks, at all of two theaters, and grossed less than $2000. There was no meaningful distribution outside of Los Angeles, nor was there much in the way of promotion except for that one persistent billboard on Highland.
Sometimes, though, a carefully cultivated mystery is the best form of advertising. The billboard listed contact information for The Room’s writer-director-producer- distributor-star, a secretive, enigmatic European (a Walloon would be my guess, judging from his name and accent) by the name of Tommy Wiseau, and not too long after the initial screening engagement, Wiseau had collected enough fan e-mail from the handful of people who bothered to see The Room to convince the management at the Sunset 5 theater that a midnight revival showing was in order. The midnight screening turned into a monthly event, and The Room became a highly localized cult phenomenon. A DVD release followed in 2005, out-of-town bookings began to accumulate, and by the end of 2009, The Room’s renown had expanded enough that even the B-Fest organizers were aware of it. This is an odd sort of success story I’m telling here, however, for even The Room’s most ardent defenders (well, its most ardent defenders who aren’t Tommy Wiseau) have no qualms about admitting that the movie totally sucks. What makes it special to its growing body of fans is that it sucks in ways completely Wiseau’s own, unencumbered by focus groups, test audiences, or any of the modern-day cinema industry’s other safety nets and security blankets. In an era when pop culture is dominated by huge, impersonal corporations, cranking out increasingly homogenous product, assembly-line style, Wiseau’s desperately dire vanity project curiously finds itself a standard-bearer for authenticity.
The Room doesn’t really have a story as such. It’s like an unfinished one-act play padded out to feature length with a ton of circular and inconsequential talk, and the central 50 minutes could be chopped out whole without any noticeable narrative effect. Johnny (Wiseau) is a banker sharing a San Francisco apartment with his jailbait fiancee, Lisa (Juliette Danielle). The same building is also home to Johnny’s best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero, of Retro Puppet Master and Alien Presence), and a teenager named Denny (Philip Haldiman), whose relationship with Johnny I don’t pretend to understand. Denny is an orphan whom Johnny was evidently interested in adopting at one point, although it’s never mentioned how either of those conditions came to be. We also never learn how or why Johnny was thwarted in his adoption efforts. All we can say for certain is that Johnny now pays for Denny’s apartment, and that he’s apparently putting the boy through college, too. We might also speculate that Denny was raised by wolves on the Siberian Taiga after his parents died, because he displays no understanding whatsoever of modern Western social norms; he’s the kind of kid who follows you upstairs when you and your girlfriend retreat to the bedroom for some slightly creepy May-late August boning, and unabashedly announces, “I just like to watch you two.”
Denny isn’t the problem in Johnny and Lisa’s relationship, though. The problem, rather, is that Lisa is having an affair with Mark. She doesn’t love Johnny anymore, you see, and has decided not marry him after all— although she has no intention of telling Johnny that. She also has no intention of breaking off the relationship, moving out of the apartment, or attenuating her financial dependence upon Johnny in any way whatsoever. This is because Lisa— like her mother, Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), her best friend, Michelle (Robyn Paris), and indeed all of the women in The Room in whose company we spend more than a few seconds— is a conniving bitch. That really does seem to be the sole and complete reason for her behavior, because heaven knows she never reaps any benefit that I can see from her campaign of manipulation. As for Mark, he systematically betrays his best friend because he— like Johnny, Denny, Michelle’s boyfriend, Mike (Mike Holmes), Johnny’s psychologist buddy, Peter (Kyle Vogt), and indeed all the men in The Room save Denny’s drug dealer, Chris R. (Dan Janjigian), and a guy who shows up out of nowhere at Johnny’s climactic birthday party (Greg Ellery)— is a spineless little shit. Eventually, Johnny figures out what’s been happening behind his back, and after a blow-up at the aforementioned birthday party, he lives out every petulant child’s “you’d be sorry if I were dead” fantasy by shooting his own head off. Wiseau then makes a point of bringing Lisa, Mark, and Denny all to the scene of Johnny’s suicide to demonstrate how very truly sorry they are.
What’s that? You’d like me to go back to that bit about Denny’s pusher? Yeah, well I’d like Wiseau to go back to it. Chris R. just shows up out of nowhere in one scene, threatens to kill Denny if he doesn’t cough up the money Chris is owed in five minutes, and is never seen or heard of again after Johnny temporarily resolves the situation by chasing the young thug away. The scene in which that happens, incidentally, is made even more surreal by the fact that it takes place on the roof of the apartment building— the only route up there seems to go through Johnny and Lisa’s bedroom! Similarly, Claudette announces at one point that she has breast cancer, and nobody ever mentions that again, either. Peter the psychologist looks poised to become a major character for about fifteen minutes in the middle of the film, and then vanishes without a trace. (Reportedly, Mr. Who-the-Fuck-Is-That-Guy from the party scene was originally supposed to have been Peter, but Kyle Vogt decided he had better things to do than continue to appear in this piece of shit.) Wiseau makes a big deal about how Johnny doesn’t drink— in fact, there’s a major but ultimately pointless set-piece in which Lisa talks him into getting drunk in defiance of his principles to dull the disappointment attendant upon not getting a promotion, and then spends the next day furiously telling everyone she knows that Johnny got drunk the night before— but nobody seems to think anything of all the champagne he consumes at his party. Lisa also tells everyone she knows that Johnny hit her while he was fucked up on her patented half-Scotch, half-vodka cocktail (the recipe for which leads me to suspect that Tommy Wiseau doesn’t habitually drink anything stronger than wine, either), but that plot thread, too, comes to naught. In fact, there really isn’t anything in The Room that does get resolved, unless perhaps we assume that this movie is nothing but Tommy Wiseau’s auto-psychotherapeutic brain-dump, in which case we might at least hope that it helped resolve the extra-extra-extra-large martyr complex that seems to be peering out from between every pair of lines in the script.
That lack of follow-through isn’t just present at the level of plotting, either. The Room’s screenplay is determinedly non-sequitur on a line-by-line basis, so that almost literally nothing said by anyone follows logically from the previous thing to come out of their or their interlocutor’s mouths. Furthermore, if you snipped out all the times somebody tells someone else not to worry about it (“it” meaning everything from romantic betrayal to failure in the workplace to gun-toting drug dealers hiding on the roof), you’d excise probably a quarter of the film’s total length. The same would be true of all the times when a character walks into the apartment uninvited and unannounced (I swear, these people are worse than the cast of “Seinfeld”) to be greeted by a dully surprised “Oh— hi, [insert name here]” from Johnny. The horrifying thing is, if you read a few interviews with Tommy Wiseau, you quickly realize that he seriously does talk like this!
Finally, there’s the feature that makes The Room truly an appropriate subject for review at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting— the sex scenes. There are four of them, and by net weight, they’re enough to qualify The Room as a softcore skin-flick, amounting as they do to roughly 20% of the film. They’re not at all evenly spaced, however, with three coming in sufficiently rapid succession as to swallow up nearly the whole of what I’d call the first act if The Room had any recognizable story structure. They’re also as worthless from an erotic standpoint as the rest of the movie is from any other. The sensibility is the same as that of 21st-century Cinemax soft-smut, which is to say that it leaves me practically pining for those awful-ass Shannon Tweed movies that I so disdained back in the 90’s. And when Tommy Wiseau is involved, they bring home most forcefully the esthetic importance of subcutaneous fat on even the male body— there is nothing sexy about being able to see the ratcheting action of muscle fibers, believe me! Worst of all, though, is the background music. The Room has a pretty fucking terrible score anyway (it reminds me a lot of Witchcraft VIII: Salem’s Ghost, actually), but whenever the action shifts to the bedroom, Mladen Milicevic’s colorless synth orchestrations are replaced by almost indescribably foul soul crooning of the sort that an old friend of mine used to call “black elevator music.” And holy shit, those lyrics! “I will stand in the way of a bullet. I will run through a forest of flames. I will climb the highest of mountains just to show you I love you, I will…”
In spite of it all, though, I have to say that I’m really not convinced. There’s no question but that The Room is toweringly, stridently bad, nor is there any denying its hypnotic effect on a first-time viewer. The mark of a true anti-classic is its re-watchability, however, and The Room’s is sadly very close to nil. Once you get over the initial shock, it becomes glaringly obvious that this movie is also toweringly, stridently boring. Nothing much happens for half of its length, and what little action there is in between the establishment of the conflict and revelations at the party has no effect on anything. Every conversation ends exactly where it began, and everybody just trundles along in their predictable ruts until Johnny puts an arbitrary end to the proceedings by putting an arbitrary end to himself. To the extent that The Room has been noticed by the mainstream entertainment media, the most common point of reference the writers can find for it seems to be The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I find it an extremely apt comparison, despite the near-total lack of meaningful resemblance between the two films, for I don’t really grasp the lasting appeal of that movie, either.