WHEN FILM CRITICS LOSE A BET, PART 2: The Room!
Over a month ago now I lost a bet with my fellow California Literary Review critic, Julia Rhodes. In the interest of eating crow, which by now has obviously gone a bit gamey, she correctly predicted 19 Academy Award winners to my paltry 11, and as a result I have to write four articles of her choosing for The Fourth Wall. The first assignment found me tracking down and reviewing Russel Rouse’s epically embarrassing melodrama The Oscar, which turned out to be pretty… well, bad. Now, Julia has me reviewing one of the newest recruits in the “Worst Movies Ever Made” pantheon… Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
I suppose it’s possible that you, dear reader, may be unfamiliar with The Room. This film originated as both a play and novel Tommy Wiseau, who would go on to write, direct and star in the movie adaptation. Wiseau was unable to get a studio involved, and instead sank over $6 million of his own money into the project. Just to clarify, that’s “six” “million” “dollars.” Nobody is entirely sure how Wiseau acquired this enormous wad of cash, although rumors abound that he made the money by importing leather jackets from Korea. Seriously. Filming took place on a soundstage over the course of eight months, for which Wiseau purchased – not rented – both a 35mm camera package and a high definition camera. He shot the film on both stocks with the cameras mounted side-by-side, capturing essentially the same shot. Dear reader, you may not be familiar with the intricacies of film production, but I assure you that on any scale – from Hollywood blockbuster to one-location wonder – this is not how it’s done.
For The Room, you see, is bad. Very bad. Really, really, really bad. And not just any kind of bad, but “laugh out loud” bad. Wiseau’s film was marketed as a serious drama upon its initial (very limited) release, but has since developed a cult following as one of the funniest movies ever captured on celluloid. Wiseau, to his credit as a showman (I suppose), has since embraced this popularity and now markets the film as a “dark comedy.” I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to make a film like The Room accidentally. The film would be unacceptable as either a drama or a comedy were it not for the film’s absolute sincerity. Tommy Wiseau’s means everything he says, but everything he says is really, really stupid.
The plot for The Room is as follows: Tommy Wiseau stars as Johnny, a hulking banker who sounds like Willem Dafoe after a debilitating stroke. He’s engaged to Lisa, played by Juliette Danielle, who no longer loves Johnny and starts having an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark, played by Greg Sestero. Lisa also decides to start claiming that Johnny hit her once.
I’m also a little unclear as to which “room” the title refers to, as there are two in the film and neither seem to be of any narrative or thematic significance.
Frankly, The Room is the kind of movie that makes you think you just got really high. The film is full of tangential communications, dropped plot points and line readings that would only make sense under the influence of some kind of foreign substance. I’m reasonably confident that if you actually got high before watching The Room the effects would cancel each other out and you’d be sober and capable of passing your monthly drug test by the time the credits rolled.
I just… Wow.
Not terribly long ago I accused The Clash of the Titans as being one of “The Worst Films Ever Made.” That particular statement was exaggerated for dramatic effect and I admitted to as much in my review, but I still got some comments that I was being unfair to a film that was made as a light entertainment for mass consumption. I’ve never understood the sentiment that because a story, work of art, sandwich or anything else you can think of reaches the largest audience possible that is somehow deserves to be exempt from scrutiny. The exact opposite is true. The things in our life with the largest impact deserve close scrutiny, particularly when the target audience seems so unwilling to question what they are being fed. If anything, criticizing The Room, a tiny little art house movie which would have had a limited audience even if it didn’t suck seems more unfair to me. If it weren’t so spectacularly, hilariously awful it would simply be beneath our mention. If Roger Ebert took the time out of his busy schedule to ridicule at length a teenager’s first short film, he might be right, but he’d also be a total dick.
You see, there’s a difference between “bad” and “inept.” Granted, there’s a large overlap between them, but it’s possible to know how to do something and still do it badly. Maybe they were phoning it in at the time, or maybe they lost your inspiration, or maybe they were just a poor match for the material, but talented or at least capable filmmakers produce absolute crap all the damned time. The same guy who directed American Graffiti also directed Attack of the Clones. The same guy who directed Manhattan also directed Small Time Crooks. And the same guy who directed Unleashed also directed The Clash of the Titans. These things happen, and it’s perfectly fair to take them to task for their missteps.
Tommy Wiseau, on the other hand, just didn’t know any better. From script to screen, every element of The Room reeks of naïveté, but also of sincerity. Watching the movie is like reading a heartbroken middle schooler’s poetry. It’s bad poetry, but the poor kid really had his heart broken. Lisa’s bizarre and decidedly less-than-Machiavellian machinations to destroy Johnny’s life in The Room are unfathomable, and it’s easy to get the impression that Tommy Wiseau has no concept himself of how women operate on any level, be it psychological or emotional. Large chunks of the film are dedicated to discussing the male character’s inability to comprehend the female psyche, and if there’s one positive thing you can say about The Room, it’s that the dialogue genuinely indicates that they don’t have a clue. My clearest thought while watching The Room was that the film plays like a screenplay Neil LaBute would have written when we was 10 years old, full of righteous anger at the sadism and victimization that the author has experienced, with none of the wit, character, or even punctuation that competent writers develop over time.
And so, in a way, I actually kind of respect The Room for its sincerity. There’s no irony to be found in Tommy Wiseau’s production, even though any appreciation of the film’s entertainment value wallows in irony like a pig in poo. Tommy Wiseau had something to say, and he said it embarrassingly badly. And it’s a treat. Here are just a few of the mind-blowing moments in The Room that you have to look forward to:
1. The most uncomfortable sex scene ever filmed.
2. The most uncomfortable sex scene ever filmed, re-edited so that it plays like a different sex scene.
3. Football in tuxedoes.
4. A principle character completely recast without any explanation in the last few scenes.
5. A character tells her daughter that she has breast cancer, to absolutely no reaction whatsoever. This plot point is never mentioned again.
6. A drug dealer is “taken to the police” after threatening a main character, an exchange that takes about 60 seconds. This plot point is never mentioned again. Also, the police allow Johnny to keep the drug dealers gun.
7. The character of Denny, played by Philip Haldiman, who is supposed to be over 18 but portrayed as a mentally handicapped 12 year old who doesn’t understand that his presence is not wanted in Johnny and Lisa’s sex bed.
8. Although the location is never mentioned, all the exteriors were shot in San Francisco. A fair portion of the film takes place on a rooftop, but rather than shoot on a rooftop in Los Angeles Wiseau filmed these scenes on a soundstage against a green screen and composited shots of San Francisco into the background. The effect is obvious, largely because the backgrounds keep changing.
9. Much of Johnny’s dialogue is written like and spoken as if it were inspired by LOL CATZ, as evidenced in the clip below.
10. At a particularly “dramatic” moment, one of the character starts screaming his co-star’s name instead of their characters. Although the film is packed with obvious ADR, nobody thought this was enough of a problem to change it in post.
If you have the opportunity to see The Room with a packed audience in Los Angeles, where it screens at least once a month (and is so popular that I’ve never been able to secure a ticket), I highly recommend it. It’s as communal an experience as Rocky Horror ever was, but even if you simply watch the DVD be sure to do so with friends. You will be quoting the movie to each other until the end of your days. “Oh, hi!” will become your new catch phrase.
And thus ends another edition of “When Critics Lose a Bet.” Though thoroughly awful, certainly more awful than The Oscar, I found myself entertained and intrigued by The Room, and fascinated that the world contains the kind of people who would actually make it. Thank you, Julia Rhodes, for teaching me a little lesson about life. What’s next?