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All filmmakers set out to be artists. All films are made with the intention of provoking some kind of emotional response; be that laughter, sadness, joy, or fear. No filmmaker, no matter how awful their output might be, plans to be intentionally bad. And yet, for every classic film that reaches the big screen, there are untold numbers that fail and remain mostly unseen. No doubt every one of them had a director, writer, and star who were certain that it would be a hit.
Infamously terrible director Ed Wood had enthusiasm, self-belief, and a vision that was simply not matched by his technical acumen. Harold P. Warren genuinely believed he could make a successful horror film with no experience or budget, yet ended up with the howlingly bad Manos: The Hands of Fate. And so it is the case with my favourite terrible film of all time: The Room.
The 'Citizen Kane' of Bad Movies
I want to make it clear that this is not a review of The Room (if nothing else, I would be 12 years too late!) because a conventional review would not do the film justice. By any normal measure, The Room is an abject failure. Amateurish direction, sluggish pacing, paper-thin plot, wooden acting, and clunky dialogue — The Room has it all, not to mention numerous superfluous scenes and a myriad of dangling plot threads. Yet, despite all that, it remains a favourite for me and many others, and in the years since its (limited) release, it has gone on to command cult classic status. But why is it so beloved?
To understand that, we need some background information. The Room was the creation of a man named Tommy Wiseau: the film’s writer, director, producer, and star. Wiseau saw himself as an Orson Welles type talent, but in reality like a Bizarro Welles, in that The Room is often cited as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” Wiseau’s background is shrouded in mystery and contradictory stories. Depending on who you believe, he was either born in America, France, or an unspecified former Soviet state in Eastern Europe, in the late '60s or 1950s. Originally, Wiseau planned for The Room to be a play, and when that didn’t get off the ground, adapted his story into a novel that he could not get published, before turning to film. Clearly, Wiseau felt his tale – of a good man betrayed by the secret affair of his girlfriend and best friend – needed to be told somehow.
In the right hands, this simple plot could have been a taut, emotional drama. In Wiseau's hands, it's laugh-out-loud bad. It aims for Shakespearean tragic drama and lands squarely in unintentional comedy. Wiseau plays the main character Johnny — a banker, a man so supernaturally wonderful that everyone in town seems to know his name. He's good at his (unspecified) job at a bank, gives part of his pay cheque to a local orphan, and is described by other characters as handsome (even though he looks like a melting waxwork of Steven Tyler). Wiseau’s interpretation of the upbeat, happy-go-lucky Johnny is to give a stilted laugh every three seconds or so, and speak his lines in a way that suggests even he, the man who wrote them, doesn’t understand them.
Juliette Daniel played Johnny’s cheating fiance, Lisa, the closest thing this confused mess has to a villain. Depending on which account you believe, she was the second or third actress to play the part after several others either left or were dismissed, but in fairness to her, she does her best with repetitive, pointless dialogue and a character with no stated motivation for anything she does.
Rounding out the main cast is Greg Sestero, playing Johnny’s best friend Mark, who has an affair with Lisa. Originally, Sestero was part of the production crew, retaining his backstage role as well as stepping in front of the camera to replace other actors who had left the role early on. Sestero plays Mark as though he’s a man with short term memory loss. Each time he has a love scene with Lisa, he acts as though he’s totally unaware of their ongoing affair. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his character has many disparate traits that often manifest themselves on a line-by-line basis. In one scene, he’s on the roof of Mark’s apartment talking and smoking a joint with a minor character, Peter. Mark suddenly flips and threatens to push Peter off the roof, before immediately calming down and then continuing their earlier conversation as though nothing had happened.
Mark vs. Peter
That’s just one example of scenes that take abrupt turns, or go absolutely nowhere. There’s the famous scene in which Lisa’s mother, during a discussion about wedding planning, drops the bomb that she “definitely has breast cancer.” The revelation is summarily dismissed by Lisa and never mentioned again. There are the numerous scenes of the guys throwing around a football (including the one where they chuck the ball around in an alleyway, wearing tuxedos, for absolutely no reason at all).
Watching The Room, you can't help but wonder how this gloriously bad film came to be. Wiseau, it seems, was not aiming for the winking, ironic Internet notoriety he had as a result of the film. He (inexplicably) spent $6 million on it. Assuming it was not an elaborate money laundering scheme, and the stories of the money being raised by investments in Los Angeles real estate and selling imported clothes are true, then Wiseau put a lot into the film. There's no way he could have known how badly it was going to turn out.
And that, I think, is why The Room has such a special place in its fans' hearts. Unlike the "so bad it's good" films regularly shown on the likes of the SyFy Channel, it didn't set out to be terrible, with stunt casting of failed actors and knowing winks to the audience (Sharknado, I'm looking at you). It was not designed by committee in hope of generating memes. The Room is one man's psyche up on screen. It may be ham-fisted and nonsensical, it may not be the great artistic statement he wanted it to be, but Tommy Wiseau followed his dream and he has made many people happy. The Room is not a good film, but it's the best bad film ever made, and that's an achievement that should really be celebrated.