What’s Going On Here: The Dark Side of “The Room”

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Greg Ellery and Juliette Danielle in “The Room.” Courtesy of Wiseau Films.

If laughter is one of the greatest gifts we can give and receive, then Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 cinematic disaster, “The Room,” is the bargain basement gift that keeps on giving. It’s one of the rare bad movies that needs no riff track in order to be uproariously funny from beginning to end. Everything about it is so utterly inexplicable—the robotic performances, the baffling dialogue, the framed pictures of spoons—that it appears to have been made by aliens straining to replicate human behavior despite having no knowledge of its meaning or purpose. Consider the scene where Johnny, played by the film’s now immortal writer/director Tommy Wiseau, thanks his “future wife” Lisa (Juliette Danielle) for throwing him a surprise birthday party. “Thank you honey, this is a beautiful party. You invited all my friends. Good thinking!” Johnny exclaims, placing emphasis bereft of irony on the last line as if it was, in fact, a clever idea for Lisa to invite his friends, of all people, to his birthday party.

I first stumbled upon clips of “The Room” on YouTube in the late 2000s. I had recently broken up with my girlfriend Lisa (seriously, no joke), and my mind was clouded in a haze of depression. Wiseau’s film helped me get over the relationship by illuminating the absurdity of my own self-pity, reflecting it back at me in a ghastly funhouse mirror. All I had to do was think of a random moment from the film—such as Wiseau’s gonzo fusion of Dean and Brando as he howls, “You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!”—and I would start chuckling. It wasn’t long before the picture became my favorite ice breaker with friends and family, uniting us all in shared bewilderment. As the film was ascending to its current position as the biggest midnight movie sensation since “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I interviewed Wiseau over the phone in 2011. “‘The Room’ has a great foundation,” he told me. “I always say, ‘If you build a house, you need a foundation first before the window.’ It’s the same with ‘The Room.’ We had a great, solid foundation. I’m not here to bash the media, but I think the mainstream media is missing the boat as far as I’m concerned. They think everything happened by accident. I’m sorry, nothing in this movie happened by accident.”

Amidst the trademark strangeness of his words, it was clear to me that Wiseau wished more people had taken his work seriously, and that he would be regarded as an actor and an artist rather than a cult figure (though he said he was open to being considered “a comical artist”). His primary goal with “The Room” was to tackle relationship issues that he believed were universal in a way that would encourage viewers to express themselves. He also mentioned that his friend and former roommate, Greg Sestero (who played Johnny’s best friend, Mark), was busy writing a book about the making of “The Room.” “It’s supposed to be a big secret and I don’t know what he’s doing with it,” he confessed. Released in 2013, Sestero and Tom Bissell’s The Disaster Artist quickly became a big hit, providing hilarious context to many of the film’s bizarre elements, while detailing the bittersweet friendship between the author and Wiseau, whose uglier tendencies onset were not sugarcoated. Now the book has been adapted into an equally entertaining film of the same name, directed by and starring one of “The Room”’s biggest fans, James Franco. There’s no question that the oft-misunderstood actor was born to play Wiseau, and his performance as the enigmatic filmmaker is the best of his career. Aided by unobtrusive prosthetics, Franco disappears entirely into the role, nailing Wiseau’s distinctive mannerisms and inflections while making him resonate as endearingly and unnervingly human. If it had been a sheer parody, the film would’ve worn thin very fast. Yet by staging various stories from Sestero’s book, Franco’s “Disaster Artist” forced me to confront the more troubling aspects of Wiseau, his film and its devoted fan base.

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Dave Franco and James Franco in “The Disaster Artist.” Courtesy of A24.

At its core, what makes “The Room” funny to me is how it presents the male ego stripped of all sophistication or competence. Countless heartbroken men have directed a movie out of spite, creating an alter ego for themselves that is sympathetic and flattering. The women are either idealized and objectified or damaged beyond repair, allowing the narrative deck to be stacked in favor of the filmmaker. Wiseau was entirely sincere in his efforts to helm this sort of picture, but his craftsmanship was so inept that it caused “The Room” to come off as a surreal satire. Johnny is nothing less than a saint beloved by everyone in his neighborhood—except for own would-be fiancé, Lisa, who is more interested in bedding Mark. As Johnny is driven to suicidal depression by his girlfriend’s unfaithfulness, eventually dying in a Christ-like pose, Mark feigns innocence whenever Lisa comes onto him, relieving himself of any guilt by insisting that he had been tricked into the affair. “What’s going on here?” is Mark’s method of foreplay disguised as a clueless refrain. In her duplicitous behavior, Lisa sports all the female character flaws as defined by Mark: she is by turns “too smart, flat-out stupid” and, yes, evil. The brazen misogyny of this premise would render it unwatchable if it wasn’t so atrociously executed, yet Wiseau’s intentions are no laughing matter. He has never been in on the joke because the joke is on him. When making appearances at screenings, Wiseau usually opens his introduction by referring to one of the film’s characters—Johnny’s creepy kid friend, Denny—as “retarded,” simply because the statement has proven to get a rise out of crowds. As long as audiences are audibly responding to him, Wiseau deems himself a success.

In its best stretches, “The Disaster Artist” plays like “Waiting for Guffman” with a dash of “The Producers,” particularly when its cumulative gags pay off during a disastrous premiere of hysterical proportions. If the entire film had simply been a shot-for-shot recreation of “The Room,” enacted by such talents as Jacki Weaver (brilliantly cast as Lisa’s mother) and Josh Hutcherson (stuck in a bad Denny wig while biting into a Biblical apple), I may have died from hyperventilation. Where the film falls short is in its efforts to contrive a touching underdog story on the order of Tim Burton’s great “Ed Wood,” with its affectionate friendship between the titular Z-grade schlock maestro and fading screen legend Bela Lugosi. Beneath the ludicrousness of Wood’s sloppy direction, there was a nobility about his work, particularly in the case of 1953’s “Glen or Glenda,” where the filmmaker underwent a groundbreaking exploration of his own transvestism. There is nothing remotely noble about Wiseau, a fact that is amplified in many scenes of Franco’s movie. In take after take of his rooftop conversation with Mark, Johnny lets out a laugh every time his friend recalls hearing about an adulterous woman left hospitalized by her abusive boyfriend. Why Wiseau’s character is amused by this line is anyone’s guess. While shooting one of Johnny’s sex scenes with Lisa, Wiseau—completely nude aside from a sock covering his genitals— treats Danielle with abject cruelty, reacting with disgust at her body until she flees from the set. When Sestero confronts him, Wiseau cites Hitchcock’s appalling treatment of Tippi Hedren as an excuse for his own disparaging directorial tactics. It was during this scene at the press screening that a colleague of mine leaned toward me and asked, “Remind me why this guy is a cult icon, again?”

Though Franco’s film flirts with these harrowing shades of Wiseau’s character, it ultimately glosses over them, just as it condenses “The Room”’s word-of-mouth popularity into a fictitious crowd-pleasing finale, whereupon the picture is hailed as an overnight success. As one male figure in Hollywood after another is revealed to have utilized his position of power to take advantage of women, Wiseau—as portrayed here—stands as the very embodiment of this insidious impotence prone to harassment. A year after my conversation with him, I interviewed Danielle about her own experience on “The Room,” and found that she had gone into hiding during the first few years of the film’s release. “In regards to what Tommy calls the ‘love scenes,’ typically in movies, they will shoot a lot of footage and edit it down to this beautiful, 15 to 30-second teaser of what happened,” Danielle told me. “But in ‘The Room,’ Tommy literally used every bit of footage that we ever shot for the love scenes, and in some cases, I think he recycled some of it. When I sat down in the theater and saw that, I had to keep my mouth from dropping open. I think that was probably what made me want to hide. It was such a surprise. I’m not a skinny girl and I never will be. There were a lot of comments made about how I looked that I wasn’t ready to deal with at that time in my life.” Though Danielle has come around to embrace the adoration of the fan community in subsequent years, the midnight screenings are still plagued by attendees who take pleasure in screaming “bitch” and “slut” at the screen whenever Lisa materializes. There’s a mean-spiritedness to the audience’s running commentary that has caused me to ponder whether these screenings have merely become a safe space for young chauvinists to spew their bile.

I’ve seen “The Room” on the big screen a number of times over the years, and the first few were hugely enjoyable. However, as the attendance has skyrocketed, so has the chaos. When I took a friend to a sold-out screening a few months ago, the audience was so loud that they drowned out the near-entirety of the film. Instead of partaking in the ritual of hurling plastic spoons at the screen, several audience members brought boxes of assorted plastic silverware instead and threw the utensils behind them, causing numerous knives and forks to fly directly into my face. Needless to say, the day a real knife is tossed at a “Room” screening is the day “The Room” closes for good. Until then, we may be wise to heed the words of Wiseau when he tells audiences, “You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but please don’t hurt each other.” And when you are expressing yourself, please be mindful of what you are expressing too.

Preview screenings for “The Disaster Artist” kick off on Thursday, November 30th, with midnight screenings of “The Room” scheduled on Friday, December 1st, and Friday, December 8th, at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.

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