A Really Bad Movie Becomes a Cult Classic

The Room

Feb. 9 , Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org


To understand the enduring appeal of The Room, the reason that brings people back to monthly Real Art Ways screenings of this worst-movie-of-all-time contender from 2003, consider two scenes filmed about a half century apart. The first is the moment in Rebel Without a Cause where a brooding James Dean, hounded by his clueless parents, lets loose the prototypical teen angst wail — "You're tearing me apart!" The second is the most YouTube-worthy moment of The Room, where writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau yells the phrase at his treacherous fiancée.

It's not exactly as effective, to say the least. Wiseau has an absurdly thick yet difficult-to-place accent (French-Austrian, maybe?), stringy shoulder-length hair, and a face with the texture and expressiveness of a melting wax figure. (He continues, with total sincerity — "Do you understand life? Do you?"). Here's the thing — watching the movie and reading interviews with the man (he's cited Rebel as an inspiration), you sense that Wiseau thinks begging a comparison to one of Hollywood's most iconic figures does not, in fact, make him look ridiculous. As when you consider any aspect of the movie, you come away with the shocking conclusion that Wiseau thinks this is completely reasonable.

Most movies that fall into "so bad it's good" territory are cheapo thrillers or horror movies that rely on a tacit understanding with the audience. The deal is that the filmmakers will portray something colossally absurd and ridiculous — Barn of the Blood Llama, let's say, or Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers — and the audience, in return for novelty value with a side of nudity and gore, doesn't get too pushy about said absurdity being portrayed well.

And sure, you laugh, because the actor playing the monster, in his dashing Styrofoam/cardboard getup, keeps bumping into the scenery while the leading man, no Olivier to begin with, is charged with the near-impossible task of appearing terrified by this. But you might feel a little bad about laughing. After all, the people making the movie are either A) convinced they're creating good work, in which case you worry about their psychological health, or B) resigned to making crap in order to pay the rent, clinging to the dream that they'll someday look back on this the way James Cameron not-so-fondly remembers his directorial debut, Piranha II: The Spawning.

But with The Room you get all the joy of bad-movie mockery mostly guilt-free. Because however mean laughing at him might be, few people have deserved it quite like Tommy Wiseau. The Room, a somber (in theory) relationship drama, doesn't just lack any of your standard bad-movie novelty value (there is nudity, but it's mostly of Wiseau). It's also a narcissist's loving tribute to himself, with a particular emphasis on a martyr complex that rivals Mel Gibson's. Wiseau spends so much time putting himself up on a cross that it's practically the audience's duty to crucify him.

In the film, Wiseau plays Johnny, a banker who is the perfect friend, father figure, and fiancée, which we know because the other characters continually announce these things to Johnny (at Real Art Ways, the audience yells out a running count each time Johnny is referred to as a best friend). To illustrate that his cinematic self is also the perfect lover, Wiseau gives himself two incredibly long soft-core sex scenes, the latter of which is padded by reusing large chunks of footage from the former.

And yet this flawless piece of humanity is soon betrayed by the people closest to him, when his scheming fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle) and his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero, known to Room fans as "Sestosterone") start having an affair. This is mostly Lisa's fault — she's the type of girl who gets bored and decides to stage a fake pregnancy or falsely accuse Johnny of abuse, which in Wiseau's world appears to be standard female behavior. (To mock the rampant misogyny, it's accepted practice to yell out "Because you're a woman!" as an answer to any character's question.)

Tragedy eventually ensues, but every scene brings some new and confounding piece of awfulness to marvel at. Why does the old woman who declares "I definitely have breast cancer" never speak of it again? If the movie really did cost six million (!) dollars, why couldn't they find a real rooftop to shoot on instead of using a terrible-looking green-screen set? Why is the character Denny written like a 14-year-old and played by a 30-year-old? And why is there a spoon in every piece of artwork in the movie? (The spoon is the official symbol of the film's inexplicable weirdness — people chuck fistfuls at the screen.)

Perhaps people keep coming back to these screenings just to revel in the all-encompassing strangeness of all this, but I like to think of the experience as a collective incantation. Gathering together and ridiculing the movie as mercilessly as possible feels like a ritual to ward away the spirits of all that the film represents: egomania, sexism, incompetence, bad hair. Of course, the irony is that the patron saint of all these things now has his decade-old film playing regularly at theaters across the country. By being as far from James Dean as one could possibly imagine, Wiseau has ended up a certain kind of icon in his own right.

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