Tommy Wiseau's 'The Room' Is A Movie That Can Never Be Replicated
Congratulations on making it through the week! If you can just power through today, you’ll be breaking glass bottles at the abandoned rail yard and getting sloppy off malört in no time! (Malört, by the way, is Chicagoland’s favorite poison-flavored way to get punch-a-cop drunk™.)
In our final installment, we’ll be talking about The Room (2003). I say “we,” but really I mean “me.” I can’t actually hear you when you address the screen. I’m not saying you should stop giving standing ovations at the end of the article, though. Anyway, if you know one cult movie, it’s very likely The Room. I hope reading the previous entries contextualize it a bit more and puts it in a historical context, and, as a treat for making it this far, I promise at the end I’ll share the story of the time I met Tommy Wisseau.
What’s This Movie About?
Johnny (played by writer/director/unknowable everyman Tommy Wiseau) is a professional weirdo-about-town in San Francisco, where he seems to spend most of his time greeting people and the occasional animal while bumbling about the city. Johnny lives with Lisa, his fiancée, who one day decides she wants to bang Mark, Johnny’s best friend. Why? It’s never explicitly stated, but a strong guess is that either the writer is working through some deep-seated misogyny of the All Women Are Manipulative and Evil variety, or possibly because she wants to know what sex with a human penis feels like.
Johnny learns of the affair after overhearing Lisa talking about it to her mother. Her mother, by the way, has breast cancer. Does this have any bearing on the plot at all? Is it even brought up again? No. Why am I mentioning it here? Because it is very, very funny.
Anyway, Johnny overhears Lisa’s confession of infidelity to her mother and decides to record her phone calls. Just when it seems like a plot is beginning to form out of the primordial sludge of disjointed story beats, we are introduced to Denny, a college student that lives next door with big played-by-a-35-year-old energy. I understand it’s easier to cast adults to play teenagers for a myriad of reasons, but I’m begging casting directors everywhere: please don’t have your ‘teenagers’ look like they’re going to pontificate on the virtues of an ergonomic mousepad.
Also, Denny owes money to a drug dealer? I don’t know, it never goes anywhere. That should be the movie’s tagline, honestly. Somewhere in here there’s also a sex scene where you see most of Tommy Wisseau’s perplexingly lumpen naked body, which looks like a white Hefty bag stuffed to bursting with raw chicken breasts. None of his muscles make sense? He looks like somebody put a Danzig wig on a jerky golem.
Anyway, Johnny confronts Mark, Mark confronts Lisa, Lisa tells Johnny she’s pregnant for some reason, a football is tossed jocularly about, and eventually Lisa makes it clear to Johnny she’s been having an affair with Mark. Things go south and eventually Johnny kills himself. Roll credits.
So What Makes it a Cult Movie?
Oh, I’m sorry, did that not make any sense? Welcome to The Room, you sad bad-postured chump. I promise you my inchoate recap will leave you less confused than seeing the actual film. Perhaps less so, because you won’t suffer from the additional confusion of seeing Tommy Wiseau’s bare butt and wondering how a human ass can be shaped like two large turnips stuffed in a nylon. Unless…it’s not a human ass at all???
Part of The Room’s cult appeal is its very inscrutability. There have been plenty of deeply weird movies: just look at yesterday’s column on Jodorowsky. But he was trying to make a point with all of his weirdness and esoteric references to gnosticism. Wiseau’s malum opus (Latin joke for all my Latinheads out there) is largely inexplicable. Who is this guy that looks like the air conditioning broke at Madame Tussauds A Tribute to Jack White exhibit? What is that accent? Is that an … Esperanto accent? Is that what that sounds like? It sounds like an amateur impressionist was asked to do “the concept of Europe.” How did this film get made? And distributed? The Room is one of those rare movies that feels like it fell out of another dimension where movies were never made, and this is the result of millions of dollars’ worth of government experimentation to prove that a series of moving images could convey a story.
Plenty of movies have been made that were obviously trying to aim for cult status. Movies that are drenched in irony and wink at the camera -- gosh, isn’t it zany that there are snakes on this plane? These movies have had varying degrees of success (see Black Dynamite for one that is actually good), and “actually we wanted to make a pulpy cult movie all along!” has been a favorite retroactive rationalization for movie producers for years, up there with “we didn’t know it was racist, it was a different time!” and “how were we supposed to know 90% of the film’s funding came from Belarusian death squads trying to launder money?”
The Room, however, is refreshingly different. It is beautifully, painfully sincere. It doesn’t know what it is. It doesn’t even seem to know what a movie is. That innocence is part of what makes it so ripe for cult obsession. In that sense it’s a throwback to the 70s: a simpler, better time, when middle school cafeterias had ashtrays and porno had kissing.
What’s the Cult Culture?
Much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there are audience participation lines where audience members will shout jokes at the screen, often relying on a line of dialogue to serve as the punchline. Also like Rocky, people will throw things into the air at certain times, most notably plastic spoons. A bizarre thing about The Room – well, one of many – is that most of the pictures used as set dressing are photos of spoons. In a movie as openly contemptuous of rationality as The Room that seems like kind of a weird detail to zero in on, like asking why the Cincinnati Clown Strangler also plays in a Smashmouth powerfolk cover band.
But the cultural impact of The Room goes beyond screenings. There are hundreds of tributes and parodies online, Tommy Wiseau himself has shown up in a few things, there are music videos and video games and a book called The Disaster Artist where author and The Room co-star Greg Sestero does a hilariously dead-on impression of Wiseau in the audiobook version. This book was also adapted into a film, which you may have heard of.
The crown jewel of The Room cult culture, however, are live showings with Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero doing question and answers afterwards. There was a time when they were doing these all around the country, and as word of mouth spread, The Room gained notoriety. When I was in college I went to one of these showings, which is where I met Tommy Wiseau. Let me tell you straight up: it’s not an act. He’s really like that.
So here’s what happened. My friend Ani and I decided to go to a screening on campus, having met in the Rocky Horror community and therefore having an interest/unhealthy fixation on cult films. We got dinner together first and arrived way too early at the theater. The doors were still closed. Nobody was there. Ani took the opportunity to step outside and make a phone call, so I sat on the floor outside the theater and bided my time. (This was a thing you had to do before cellphones were fun.)
“Wäøw, prêtty gúrl. Is shë yöur gårl-frîéñd?” said a voice from behind me. Holy crap, it was Tommy Wiseau! Hanging out in the hallway of the Indiana University Student Union! Wearing sunglasses? And, like, four belts – did he just step out of a Final Fantasy? And why is his mouth so wet-looking? It looks like he applied lip gloss but it ran way down his chin? Like he drank it? And I’m 5’5”, he’s like my height, plus he’s wearing combat boots? I thought he was taller?
All of these questions rushed through my mind. All that came out of my mouth, though, was “You’re Tommy Wiseau!”
“Hå hå, I shürê ām!” he responded Wiseau-ily. He smelled like… have you ever smelled fresh-pressed plastic? Like at an Old Navy when they’re making flipflops in the giant Flipflop Press I’m assuming they have in the back? Like that, but with a hint of watermelon. Which may have been the lipgloss smeared all over the bottom half of his glistening, wet face. “Whāt äre yóü gøing to skëwl för?” he asked.
“Oh, film!” I enthused. “I love movies. I want to write and direct them one day.”
“Åh, sô my møvïe îs a bíg inflüençe on yøü, hüh?” he said. I wasn’t sure what to say. I very much want to make movies that are actually good, so that’s not exactly true. But if this obvious lunatic hasn’t yet figured out that we’re all laughing at him I don’t want to be the one that finally tells him and risk having my penis ripped off in the manner of a gorilla trying to start a lawnmower.
“Well, I love cult movies. Rocky Horror is a really important part of my life, and–”
“Nâh! Nø! Yöû håff tö måké sérïøus møvíë! Wiff yøür whølé hëårt, is impörtånt.” He seemed kind of pissed that I’d compared his movie to one of the most culturally important films ever made, so I turned to another student I’d noticed kind of milling around. He seemed like he also wanted to talk to the inimitable Mr. Wiseau, so by dint of trying to get him into this conversation I turned to him and said:
“Hey man! Are you a film student too?”
“Uh, no. I’m Greg Sestero,” said Greg Sestero. In my defense he looks really young, and also just kind of looks like a guy. He had a bit of a beard going on so I didn’t recognize him. He seemed genuinely annoyed that I’d mistaken him for a student, though, or maybe just that being accosted by scruffy college students was his life now. We talked a bit later on and seemed pretty cool, so maybe I just caught him at a bad time.
Just then my friend Ani came in, breaking the weird tension that happened because in the span of about five minutes I’d managed to make both stars of The Room mad at me, and offered to take a picture of all of us. I put my arm around them, and allow me to confirm your suspicions: yes, Tommy Wiseau is weirdly lumpy. His muscles are really bulgy and hard, but not in the way you’d expect. It’s like he’s stealing decorative autumnal gourds.
And that’s pretty much it. You did! You made it through all my mad ramblings about my hyperspecific niche interest! Or just clicked on this one maybe, I don’t know your life, maybe you are a dirty cheater. I hope I’ve managed to convey something about cult movies, something I’m deeply passionate about.
Because something that a lot of people don’t get about movies is that they can be much more than something you passively watch. They can be a ritual. They can be a community. They can be an inspirational creative spark that lights your imagination on fire and changes the course of your entire life.
Speaking of, did you know that I’m available to write on your television show? I’ll bake cookies and tell you stories about cult movie conventions that are too depraved for Cracked!
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on twitter.
Top image: Chloe Productions