Virtually nothing about The Room makes sense, including the fact that, despite its title, its action doesn’t only take place in a single indoor setting. Thus, it’s only fitting that this most inexplicable of “bad movies”—an indie whose astounding awfulness has helped it attain cult status—is now receiving a dramatized origin story courtesy of James Franco’s The Disaster Artist.
It’s something of a grand cosmic joke that Franco is receiving Oscar attention for his imitation of what may be the lousiest performance in big-screen history—namely, writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau’s turn as Johnny, a man whose relationship to fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle) is torn apart by her affair with his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). An adaptation of Sestero and Tom Bissell’s 2013 behind-the-scenes account of the film’s production, Franco’s latest is both an absurd farce about artistic incompetence and a good-natured tribute to realizing one’s foolish dreams, replete with impressively spot-on recreations of the many infamous moments that have made The Room a notorious modern classic.
Still, it pales in comparison to the real thing.
Shot over the course of six months in 2002 from a script that originally clocked in at 500-plus pages, The Room is the brainchild of the peerlessly goofy Wiseau, who reportedly spent $6 million of his own (mysteriously obtained) money on the project—which, by the way, was shot in both 35mm and HD because, well, it’s not really clear why. Beginning with a single Highland Avenue billboard advertisement for its June 27, 2003, premiere, it gradually attracted a rabid group of midnight-movie die-hards (including celebrities), all of whom were enthralled by its tragic tale of Johnny, a San Francisco banker engaged to the “beautiful” Lisa, who in the opening scene receives a red dress from her beau. After putting on said gown, Lisa and Johnny are visited by Denny (Philip Haldiman), a teenage neighbor with a floppy mid-‘90s haircut whom Johnny financially supports as a surrogate son of sorts, and who quickly asks to join Johnny and Lisa for the “nap” they’re about to take. He’s rebuffed, but nonetheless sneaks upstairs to interrupt their foreplay pillow fight, telling them “I just like to watch you guys.”
Then he leaves, and Johnny and Lisa get down to carnal business—by which I mean, he humps her in the belly button to the sounds of generic R&B for minutes on end, their movements almost as awkward as their dubbed-in moans.
This lousy opening passage is followed by a typically clunky, and unintentionally amusing, exchange. After providing viewers with a gratuitous ass shot of himself (to complement all the others of Lisa’s chest), Wiseau has Johnny, the morning after this tryst, kiss Lisa goodbye and engage in the following dialogue:
Johnny: “Did you like last night?”
Lisa: “Yes I did”
Johnny’s chuckle is a signature affectation, materializing at such inopportune moments that he comes across as a guy who doesn’t understand anything being said in his presence. That impression is further amplified by his rushed line readings, which are full of verbal inflections that make no logical sense. Then, there’s his strange accent, which sounds “foreign” in a weird, generic way that’s impossible to pin down (Wiseau claims he’s from Louisiana but, um, no), and which turns his every utterance mumbly. The fact that he’s also a buff guy with long, messy black hair and a squinty expression on his lined face, and that he’s consistently in clothes that seem ruffled or ill-fitting—or just insanely worn, as with a suit jacket whose sleeve he rolls up over his button-down shirt—only adds to the sense of Johnny as a pod person, or a visitor from another, mush-mouthed world.
The Room, however, is only partially about Johnny; its other prime focus is Lisa, who decides out of the blue that she hates her future husband (despite his generosity and loyalty), and instead wants to sleep with Mark. That she does, since Mark—first bearded, then clean-shaven, and always embodied by Sestero with clumsy blandness—just can’t resist her creepy caresses. Those gestures are part and parcel of Wiseau’s cluelessness about anything that might be considered “adult”: from rose petal-covered R&B sex scenes, to chocolate-make-out sessions, to a non-sequitur sequence in which Denny is accosted by a gun-toting drug dealer, to Lisa and Johnny getting drunk on a mixed drink of scotch and vodka (!), the film feels like the handiwork of an eight-grader whose knowledge of grown-up life comes from scattered late-night viewings of Cinemax movies.
Often going literally out of focus, The Room interjects inexplicable asides and elements into its soap opera-y love-triangle narrative. There are the numerous conversations shared by Lisa and her mom Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), the funniest of which involves Claudette informing her daughter, “I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer”—and then never mentioning her ailment again. There are the many instances of Johnny and his buddies tossing around a football, be it on a rooftop surrounded by a green-screened San Francisco backdrop, a dark alley, or a bright alleyway while dressed in tuxedos. And there are the framed pictures of spoons that decorate Johnny and Lisa’s home, which are so bizarre that, at screenings of The Room—which operate like Rocky Horror Picture Show-style interactive events—fans throw plastic spoons at the screen whenever they appear.
Given its crappy construction, inapt one-liners and innumerable inanities—as well as Lisa’s unforgettably horrifying neck-thingy—The Room is best seen with a boisterous midnight audience. There, its amateurishness (and rampant Lisa-centric misogyny) is writ so ridiculously large that it plays as an awe-inspiring folly fit for communal rituals (a rundown can be found here). From Johnny’s famous cry, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” (modeled after James Dean’s wail in Rebel Without a Cause), to his recurring, incorrect impersonation of a chicken (“Cheep cheep cheep!”, which is not the sound a chicken makes), Wiseau’s film is incompetent and idiotic, narcissistic and nasty, tedious and mesmerizing. And in its commitment to its own dramatic ludicrousness, as well as to the misguided Hollywood ambitions of its maker (who also sells his own line of underwear!), it’s also more than a bit magical.
It is, in short, the ne plus ultra of crap. A trash masterpiece. And, as ably lionized by Franco’s The Disaster Artist, the singular vision of a man blind to his own wholesale lack of talent.