I’ve spent quite some time on this blog – and in private conversations – discussing good movies, awful movies, addictive TV shows and the effects of pop culture in general. So I figure it’s about time we discuss the best worst movie ever made. Sure, there are plenty of contenders for the title, and I certainly don’t claim to have watched every terrible film out there, but in my mind, there is but one true champion.
I had seen clips of it online, always topping top 10 lists of the most negative superlatives a movie can have attached to it: bad acting, worse direction, awful dialogue, an inane premise, non-existent production values, you name it. And yet every single criticism always comes with the same caveat: as bad as it is, the movie is strangely mesmerizing; like a 7-car pile up you just can’t avert your eyes from. Within a little more than a decade, it went from box office bomb and critical flop to cult classic, of the kind that warrants midnight viewings with audience participation akin to the party atmosphere we associate with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The man behind this movie is a wonderfully bizarre guy who not only starred, directed and wrote the screenplay for this perplexing phenomenon, but also financed the entire project himself. Whether an independently wealthy lunatic or just a very, very eccentric individual, Tommy Wiseau has gone from being the butt of every film critic joke, to enjoying the kind of infamy reserved for truly remarkable creators.
And yes, The Room is remarkable. Remarkably bad – not in the ‘so bad it’s good‘ way, but in the so bad it’s actually genius cliché we associate with such head-scratchers as Showgirls, Battlefield Earth or Manos, Hands of Fate.
If you haven’t seen The Room yet, I urge you to drop everything and do so right now.
For any budding film maker, it is the most useful list of what not to do you will ever come across and the most educational 90-odd minutes you will ever spend.
For the casual movie fan, it’s the ultimate experience in surrealism, where every film rule is flipped on its head – yet the final result, bad though it may be, still manages to hold a strange appeal.
What makes the movie so bad it’s good?
It’s not just one thing, of course. It might be this incredible, inexpertly dubbed piece of dialogue that may just be the single most surreal mood swing in the history of cinema:
Or maybe it’s the infamous “you are tearing me apart, Lisa” scene that took forever to shoot because Wiseau just couldn’t remember the simple line he wrote as a tribute to James Dean:
No two people ever give you the same answer when posed that very question, as there is so much to choose from:
For one thing, nothing that happens in The Room makes any sense.
As far as the central plot goes (and I use the term plot loosely), it’s a very simple premise: Johnny is engaged to Lisa, Lisa is a manipulative bitch who screws his best friend Mark, Johnny finds out about her betrayal and [spoiler alert] eats his own gun. The end.
As simple as it is, this brief story is stretched out into a full-length feature film, mostly thanks to useless, repetitive scenes that include: the same conversations taking place over and over, various instances of tossing a football in unlikely locations and out-of-place outfits, and let’s not forget the train-wrecks that are the uncomfortably long sex scenes (complete with cheesy 90’s music).
Each scene contains dialogue that is copy-pasted from the one before it (yet, inexplicably, the one scene that warrants a word-for-word repetition, namely the recorded phone call playback, is written anew and completely inconsistent with the actual conversation that preceded it). Every few lines of dialogue contain the same proclamations: Johnny loves Lisa; Johnny is a great guy with good prospects; Lisa doesn’t love Johnny; Johnny is boring; Lisa loves Mark; Mark is Johnny’s best friend; Lisa doesn’t care because she’s evil personified. No, that last part is not in the movie, but it is the (very chauvinistic) approach and the unanimous conclusion drawn from this unfortunate character arc.
Perhaps the movie is targeted towards audiences with non-existent short-term memories, as not only are we pounded over the head with those repetitive statements, but we’re also left scratching our heads when entire sub-plots are introduced and immediately abandoned, never to be mentioned again. Those include, incredibly, Lisa’s mother’s throw-away line about having breast cancer (and her daughter’s casual dismissal of the disease) and Johnny’s creepy young neighbor Denny’s scary encounter with a drug dealer named Chris-R (yes, it’s hyphenated for some unexplained reason), who is quickly subdued by Johnny and Mark and never heard from again. And let’s not forget the utterly pointless scenes, like the one where Mark inexplicably pushes Peter in the alley, or Johnny’s friend Mike’s account of how Lisa and her mother were at the house to witness his embarrassing retrieval of his underwear, which he left at Johnny’s (because that’s where everyone goes to hook up), a monologue that describes the event as “tragic” and contains the phrase “me underwears“. Yes, that’s a direct quote.
Even what little dialogue is actually relevant to the plot appears to have been written by a (strangely misogynistic) 5th grader. Every scene contains an “oh hi _____[fill in random name or, in one instance, doggy]”, an “I don’t want to talk about it“, a “don’t worry about it” and a declaration of love, the oddest of which you’d think is creepy voyeur-and-possible-drug-addict Denny’s confession about having feelings for Johnny’s “future wife” Lisa and Johnny’s zen reaction to the news. However, the most weird recurring line in the movie, hands down, is actually the wonderfully inaccurate chicken “cheep cheep” sounds that rival even Arrested Development in hilarity. (“Future wife“, incidentally, is mentioned about a dozen times, but not once is Lisa referred to as Johnny’s fiancée, presumably because Wiseau hates anything remotely related to France or the french language).
The Room is not only (very, very, VERY) badly written, it is also horribly miscast. Johnny’s long black mane, muscular torso and pasty face would make him far more believable as an aging rockstar than a banker engaged to a much younger woman. Lisa’s homely girl-next-door looks are in direct conflict with her portrayal as a manipulative seductress. Mark’s young, handsome physique make him an adequate love interest for Lisa, but a totally improbable choice as Johnny’s best friend.
And yet, it’s the real life friendship between the two that seems to have inspired Wiseau to write this screenplay. That, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, of all things. (fun fact: Wiseau named Mark after his favorite actor, Matt Damon, whose named he misheard).
Which brings me to the character of Mark, and the actor portraying him, Greg Sestero. Although nothing about The Room makes sense, and Wiseau’s own mysterious persona is one of the most well-guarded secrets in the industry (to this day, he still deflects any type of personal inquiries that might shed more light into the mind of the man behind the movie), a lot of what happens on screen is explained in The Disaster Artist, Sestero’s brilliant tell-all book, published a decade after the movie’s premiere – and totally worth checking out in audiobook form, as Sestero’s impression of Tommy is absolutely uncanny and some of the stories within will have you in stitches).
The memoir, which was very well received, is simultaneously a hilarious behind the scenes play-by-play of the grueling process that was the making of The Room, and a decidedly sad story about the man responsible for unleashing this bizarre feat of “cinematic masturbation“, as one critic put it, unto unsuspecting audiences around the globe.
If Sestero’s account of his unlikely friendship with Tommy Wiseau is reliable, and we have no reason to suspect it isn’t, Wiseau is not only a firm believer in the american dream, but the actual personification of it, even if he came about it in a very unorthodox way. Despite his humble beginnings and meandering journey to dubious Hollywood stardom, Wiseau ultimately managed to not only overcome hardships and make it to the promise land, but to single-handedly make his dream come true, by writing, directing, producing and self-financing – at a whopping 6 million dollar budget – his very own movie. The fact that he is much older than he lets on, is excessively secretive about his private life, offers no real plausible explanation as to how he amassed his sizable fortune, is hindered by a bizarre appearance, a loose grasp of the english language, and virtually no personal relationships aside from his tumultuous friendship with Greg, are all testament to how determined Wiseau was to overcome these obstacles and make a name for himself in the industry.
And make a name he did, albeit not the one he was aiming for.
Everything about The Room is unsettling, down to the frightening poster of the extreme closeup on Tommy’s pale, mid-blink face and the tag line “Can You Really Trust Anyone?“, but also deeply personal. In that sense, The Room is semi-biographical, revolving around Tommy’s deep desire to be loved and accepted (explicitly mirrored in every character’s declaration about how great Johnny is).
What quickly becomes evident in Sestero’s book is exactly how much Wiseau craved the very thing he seemed unable to achieve: acceptance. The narrator’s stories about Tommy, whether about his social life (or lack thereof), his acting classes or his peers, are as humorous as they are depressing. The one thing we learn about Tommy is that he is a very lonely man. This becomes even more evident in the way he treasures – in his own unique way – and relies on his friendship with Greg, actively supporting his quest to become an actor, then feeling envious when, at the young age of 20, Greg starts making headway in the film business, and ultimately becoming resentful and almost vindictive when he feels Greg distancing himself from him, years before he even started working on The Room.
As easy (and entertaining) at is it so poke fun at this incredibly odd man, a guy who – according to Sestero – literally wanted his own planet, someone so lacking in self-awareness that he completely ignored the fact that most people he encountered basically believed he belonged to exactly that, what I find even more fascinating is his human side, the one he so desperately tries to shield from inquisitive reporters and fans alike.
His many quirks and the fact that he appears completely out of touch with reality make it easy for everyone to dismiss him as any crackpot wannabe movie star whose temperamental outbursts on set and unorthodox approach to the film making process have made him the stuff of legend. Every detail we learn about Wiseau’s conduct and executive decisions while filming The Room surpass any Hollywood myth about the various eccentricities of big name movie stars: from keeping sets open when filming embarrassing sex scenes, to firing and hiring a number of crews and actors throughout production; from purchasing, rather than renting, the camera equipment while balking at allowing a decent wardrobe budget, to the story behind the now infamous framed photos of spoons that make those midnight viewings such an interactive experience.
Still, what’s more interesting – endearing, even – about Tommy Wiseau is his earnestness in making his first feature film not only a resounding success on par with big Hollywood productions, but also a completely American movie, or at least the version of America his own skewed perception of his surroundings allowed him to conceive (most evident in his choice of Sestero as the all-american guy, and in his obsession with tossing a football around even when inexplicably dressed in ill-fitting tuxedos). Wiseau went to great lengths to acquire a SAG card early on; he managed to get a theatrical release for his movie in order to submit it to the Academy awards; he rented a billboard, plastered it with a gigantic close-up of his face (which misled many audiences to assume they were about to watch a horror flick), and kept it up for FIVE years; more impressively, he financed the entire operation himself, which is a huge accomplishment – or a tremendous waste of money, depending on how you look at it.
In the end, the few movie-goers who went into the theater expecting a chamber drama, as the plot summary inferred, or a scary movie, as the ominous picture of Wiseau, coupled with the cliché tag line, suggested, were met with what was ultimately one of the most unintentionally hilarious and unexpectedly surreal 99 minutes of film they could possible imagine.
To his credit, Wiseau seems to enjoy his late-found success, takes the criticism in stride and frequently shows up at screenings to hold Q&A sessions. He might not have made the ‘best movie of the year’ as he intended, but his cult classic ‘black comedy’ has garnered such a following that his name will not soon be forgotten.