So Bad It’s Good: The Transcendent Peculiarity of ‘The Room’

Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: there are films that are insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (Birdemic), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you the latest installment in our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: Tommy Wiseau’s legendary The Room, which Entertainment Weekly dubbed “The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies.”

The primary pleasure of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic is its attitude toward its title character, and the enthusiastic playing of it by Johnny Depp. Mr. Wood, a staggeringly incompetent low-budget filmmaker whose work somehow became more laughable the longer he worked, was no exploitation movie purveyor or Hollywood fame-monger; he was in love with the sheer act of making a movie, threw every ounce of his heart and soul into it, and not only seemed legitimately unaware of how terrible his product was, but incapable of separating his love for the act with its result. Few filmmakers in the decades since Wood’s passing have earned legitimate comparison with him; there are certainly directors as cringe-worthy (Uwe Boll, Friedberg and Seltzer), yet they’re smugly cynical in a way that Wood never was. If there is a 21st-century Edward D. Wood Jr., it is probably Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer, and star of the 2003 disaster The Room.

Between its post-mortem articles, Wiseau’s peculiar interviews, and co-star Greg Sestero’s 2013 book The Disaster Artist, The Room‘s production has become somewhat legendary in bad-movie circles. Wiseau first wrote the script as a play, then adapted it into an unpublished, 500-plus-page novel, then a screenplay. He financed the six-month production himself, to the tune of six million dollars, much of it thrown away on peculiar/naïve decisions like shooting on a soundstage (though it could have easily been shot in pretty much anyone’s apartment), buying cameras instead of renting, and shooting simultaneously on film and HD video (when one or the other would certainly have sufficed). Actors were replaced willy-nilly, as was the entire crew (twice).

The auteur spent much of the remaining budget advertising its very brief Los Angeles theatrical run, renting a large billboard on Highland Avenue at a cost of $5,000 a month — for four years, long after the movie’s theatrical engagement ended. But late in that run, a funny thing happened. People saw the movie, almost accidentally. Midnight screenings began popping up. Fans saw it repeatedly. They came dressed as their favorite characters, tossed around footballs, shouted lines back at the screen. It had turned into Rocky Horror Picture Show, if Rocky Horror Picture Show were one of the worst movies ever made.

And make no mistake: it is. There’s a pronounced Cinemax After Dark vibe to its early scenes, which rotate lengthy, deeply un-erotic sex scenes with long dialogue encounters, set in either the titular room, its adjoining apartment, or the building’s roof (shot on a soundstage, with San Francisco skylines badly green-screened). Eventually, a story emerges: of Johnny (Wiseau), a “wonderful person” who is engaged to Lisa (Juliette Danielle). We know they’re engaged because he frequently says, “You’re my future wife!” At any rate, though everything appears hunky-dory between these two oft-unclothed lovebirds, there is trouble in paradise; Lisa is, in fact, deeply unhappy (maybe? She keeps changing her mind) and has eyes for his best friend Mark (Sestero), though she can’t cut ties with Johnny because of his financial support. Lisa’s kind of like a femme fatale, but as conceived by someone who was dropped on his head as a child. Several times.

Much of the film operates on a kind of Mobius loop: a Johnny/Lisa sex scene, followed by a scene between Lisa and her mom in which she announces that she doesn’t love Johnny and doesn’t want to marry him, followed by a Mark/Lisa sex scene (usually including his protest that “I can’t hurt Johnny, he’s my best friend”), and then it starts over. That cycle is punctuated by an out-of-left-field encounter between neighbor-kid Denny and a gun-wielding drug dealer (“WHAT KIND OF DRUGS DID YOU TAKE?” Lisa demands), a weird chocolate-and-make-out scene between two characters we haven’t met, and football. Lots and lots of football.

The writing and directing, such as it is, is often hilariously baffling. In one of their many talking-about-Johnny scenes (seriously, this movie is like the anti-Bechdel Test), Lisa’s mom blurts out, “I got the results of the test back — I definitely have breast cancer,” but it’s never mentioned again. (When actress Carolyn Minnott asked Wiseau why it didn’t come back up, he told her it was “a twist.”) Lisa and Mark are finally discovered by a character we’ve never met before, who plays several more scenes without ever being introduced. (This was apparently the result of production going over schedule; when an actor had to leave before these scenes were shot, his lines were merely given to a new actor.) The big reveal hinges on the recording of a telephone call on a cassette tape (45-minute sides, max!) that was hooked up days earlier. Johnny twice taunts someone for being a chicken by making a “cheep cheep cheep” noise, which chickens don’t make. The comical sex scene music cues, which seems to have been pulled from some kind of “Unreleased R&B Hits of the ‘90s” compilation tape. And so on.

But what’s singular and fascinating about The Room is that none of these gaffes are particularly egregious, and, claustrophobia of the interiors aside, it’s not a particularly incompetent movie from a technical standpoint. We’re not dealing with something like Birdemic here, which is full of unmatched sound and edits, and looks like it was shot on an iPhone. There’s a degree of, at the very least, basic cable professionalism on display here, and some of the performances aren’t even half bad, considering the dialogue the actors have been handed.

No, the reason that The Room lived past that initial theatrical run, the reason that midnight screenings continue and a celebrity cult has formed and a book was written and that book is being made into a film, the reason we’re talking about it right now in this column, is simple: Tommy Wiseau himself. He’s such a bizarre and inexplicable onscreen presence, between his Gene Simmons/Brad Dourif-as-Grima-Wormtongue look and his impenetrable accent and his eccentric line readings — which veer from weirdly overwrought (“YOU ARE TEARING ME APART, LISA!”) to incongruently offhand (“I did not hit her, it’s not true! It’s bullshit! I did not hit her! I did not! Oh, hi Mark”) — that his infinitely meme-able performance helps the picture transcend from mere, boring blandness to borderline surrealism. Who is this odd man? Why is he doing this? And the answer is simple: because there was no one to tell him no. He wrote the checks, he made the production happen, and he put himself in the spotlight, whether he should have been there or not.

And that, ultimately, is the peculiar appeal of The Room. In the face of its post-release cult popularity, Wiseau has tried to claim that the things we’re laughing at are all intentional, that it’s some kind of “quirky black comedy” (to quote the text for an upcoming NYC screening), a joke that he’s in on. The fact that he’s somehow convinced himself of his retroactive goal speaks even more to the deep delusion at this film’s center; anyone who watches more than five minutes of The Room will know exactly what kind of Deeply Serious Statement its maker was attempting, and failed at miserably. And in that five minutes, in fact, they’ll see what may very well be The Room’s definitive image: the film’s nude writer/director/actor, rolling out from under the sheets and padding off to the bathroom, displaying his ass for all the world to see.

The Room is available for rental from Netflix. Special thanks to Mac Welch.