The Room: “The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies”

A great many films have been called “the worst of all time”, very few of them have been as well-loved as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). On any given Saturday night, The Room devotees somewhere will fill a theater somewhere to shout their favorite lines, to toss a football between their seats in imitation of the characters, and to throw plastic silverware at the screen whenever an inexplicable framed photo of a spoon makes an appearance. The Room’s fan-base is both significant in size and remarkably ardent, but why have cultist flocked specifically to The Room rather than any of the myriad other films that have been nominated for “worst of all time” status?

There is a definite mean-spiritedness to loving a film ironically; almost anyone who is a fan of a “worst movie ever” is a fan in spite of the filmmaker’s best efforts, not because of them. Laughing at an artists’ heartfelt attempt to sincerely express him-or-herself is, in no uncertain terms, cruelty; when gleefully laughing at Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, the audience is transformed into a conspiracy of bullies, picking on the creative untalented, ridiculing them for having made the effort. Where The Room separates itself from its fellow “worst ever” films, is in the lack of the guilt that accompanies heaping scorn onto Wiseau’s picture. Where Plan 9 From Outer Space is an earnest, if ineffective, effort to inspire the same wonder and terror that a well-made Sci-Fi Horror film does, The Room is a transparent, and deeply misogynistic, effort by an artist to recreate the end of a failed relationship with himself in the roll of tragic, faultless, hero.

In an article for Entertainment Weekly, Clark Collis writes “If The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad movies, that makes Tommy Wiseau the Orson Welles of Crap.” (Collis. 2008.32) Collis’ analogy is apt; not only is The Room notoriously bad to the extreme that Citizen Kane (1941) is renowned, but it is just as much work of a single, and singular, author. Welles produced, directed, wrote (with Herman Mankiewicz), and starred in Citizen Kane; the same is true of Wiseau and The Room. Further, both films would seem to be based upon nonfiction, with Kane largely to be a film a clef about the life of William Randolph Hearst, and Wiseau’s film clearly about his personal experience of a breakup. Welles’ film is about a vain man, Wiseau’s is by a vain man; ironically, if Hearst had made a film about himself, it would probably have more in common with The Room, than it would with Citizen Kane.

In an article for The A.V. Club, Scott Tobias writes

At the core of all this superfluous nonsense is genuine, unmistakable, nakedly personal pain: Somebody out there hurt Wiseau badly, and The Room is his attempt to come to terms with it. His conclusion? Women are terrible, irrational, manipulative creatures who get off on toying with the hearts of good men. (Tobias, 2008)

There is no escaping the feeling that The Room is a work of autobiography; details (a false accusation of domestic abuse, an affair with a friend, a story about siblings squabbling over an inherited house) seem too specific to be drawn, whole cloth, from the creative ether, especially by a storyteller of Wiseau’s obviously limited, or non-existent, talent. It is clear that Wiseau is processing his own feelings about his breakup on celluloid. The result is a film that tells the story of kind, generous, successful man, played by the filmmaker himself, and his betrayal at the hands of a selfish, malicious harpy, motivated only by shortsighted cruelty.

The Room

Wiseau wastes no time in establishing his protagonist as a generous and sensitive partner; in the film’s first scene, Johnny (Wiseau) arrives at this apartment (the titular “room”) to find his fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle) awaiting; he quickly presents her with a new and, we are meant to think, expensive dress. Because there is no mention of a special occasion, we are lead to believe that the giving of expensive gifts is routine for Johnny; in fact, just a few minutes later (in one of The Room’s most baffling and delightful scenes) we learn that Johnny is the local florist’s best customer, with a standing order of a dozen red roses. It is made clear both by action and by dialogue (“I would do anything for my girl”, “Anything for my Princess!”) that Johnny is a wonderful boyfriend, certainly too good for a woman as ungrateful as Lisa.

Johnny’s largesse does not extend solely to his future wife; we learn that he is also the benefactor of his, perhaps developmentally disabled, neighbor, Denny (Philip Haldiman). Denny is The Room’s most enigmatic character; it is unclear when he is introduced, entering Johnny and Lisa’s apartment uninvited and attempting to frolic with them in bed when they are about to make love, who he is in relation to the other characters. Denny’s naiveté, mannerisms, wardrobe, and coiffure suggest that he is, perhaps, in his mid-teens or younger, but we learn that Denny lives alone, is going to college, and has become entangled in San Francisco’s criminal underworld in the form of local drug dealer Chris-R (Dan Janjigian); these facts would point to an age of about twenty for Denny, making his behavior all the more baffling. While no particular disability is ascribed to Denny at any time, Lisa does eventually explain the relationship between the man/boy and Johnny while talking to her mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), who, like the audience, has questions, telling her:

Johnny wanted to adopt Denny. It’s really a tragedy how many kids out there don’t have parents. When Denny turned eighteen, Johnny found him a little apartment here in this building and he’s paying for it until he graduates from school. Johnny really loves Denny even though he doesn’t say it much. He’s like a father figure to him. I told you, mom, Johnny is very caring about the people in his life. And he gave Denny is own set of keys to our place.

While the speech does little to explain Denny’s mannerisms, it does explain why Denny is present at all: he exists solely to show the innate good in Johnny.

If were not enough that Johnny is supporting, emotionally and financially, his fiancée and the neighbor boy, he has also opened his home to Lisa’s friend Michelle (Robyn Paris) and her boyfriend, ostensible comic-relief character, Mike (Scott Holmes), that the two may be able to enjoy romantic rendezvous away from the prying eyes of whomever they do not want seeing them (Roommates? Parents?). The other characters come and go from Johnny and Lisa’s apartment often and at will; their home is a safe haven to all: a place where they can come for comfort and sage counsel.

While Tommy is a father figure to Denny, he also serves as a doting older brother to his male friends Mark (Greg Sestero), Mike, and to a lesser extent, Peter (Kyle Vogt). The relative ages of the characters in The Room are more than a little nebulous, but it is clear that Johnny is meant to be seen as old enough to be more wizened than his friends, but still young enough to be thought of as a kind of peer. Johnny is generous with his time and patience when it comes to his friends, ready to listen to their problems, dole out words of wisdom (“If a lot of people loved each other, the world would be better place to live”,  “That’s life!”), and lend his support in any way he can. Johnny’s relationship to his friends is best summed when he tells an injured Mike, “Listen, if you need anything, call me anytime, alright?”

The Room

Johnny’s goodness is universally recognized by The Room’s other characters, even those who would use and betray him; Claudette, refers to him, in multiple instances, as a “wonderful man”, even though she believes that Lisa should stay with Johnny if only for the financial stability, and Michelle, who is privy to, and delighted by, Lisa’s affair with Mark, tells Lisa that she will have “a hard time forgiving” her if she does not come clean to her fiancé. Even the florist knows and loves Johnny, telling him “you’re my best customer”, when he comes in for his usual dozen red roses. And the late arrival/Peter replacement character, Steven (Greg Ellery) points out that Tommy is “very sensitive”. Everybody loves Johnny, making his betrayal all the more senseless.

If it were not enough that Johnny is a thoroughly, fundamentally, good man, Wiseau shamelessly lets the audience know that he is a highly desirable and skilled lover. No matter the extent to which Lisa’s feelings for Johnny may have faded, she clearly still desires him physically, complimenting him non-sequiturs like “You have nice pecs!” In a film of the type that Wiseau is attempting to make, a filmmaker would most likely show the deteriorating state of Johnny and Lisa’s relationship by making their sex scenes perfunctory, lacking in passion, saving the erotic heat for the love scenes between Lisa and Mark, but this is not the case in The Room. In all four (!) of The Room’s sex scenes, two between Johnny and Lisa, two between Mark and Lisa, Wiseau employs the same techniques: dim lighting, soft focus, gliding camera moves, cheesy R&B slow-jams; Wiseau clearly does not want to make any suggestion that Johnny, or Wiseau the actor, by proxy, is lacking as lover. Wiseau clearly thinks very highly of his own physique, as evidenced by the aforementioned line referring to his pectoral muscles, and the lingering shot of his nude buttocks as he walks to the bathroom the morning after.

The myriad evidence of Johnny’s worthiness serves dual purposes; it elevates Johnny to sainthood, places him beyond reproach, and it highlights the fundamental un-worthiness of Lisa. The blame for the dissolution of Johnny and Lisa’s relationship, and Johnny’s subsequent suicide, is placed entirely upon Lisa’s shoulders. How could any woman cuckold a man like Johnny: kind, generous, empathic, wise, a sexual dynamo, unless she was, as she is described by Peter (the psychiatrist) “evil”?

Peter’s opinion that Lisa is “evil” is the opinion of The Room as a whole as well. She is a user, a cheater, and a manipulator, motivated entirely by self-interest. Lisa makes it clear that she fully intends to continue living with Johnny, enjoying the fruits of his labor at the bank, while cuckolding her poor fiancé with his best friend, Mark. In regard to Johnny, Lisa says numerous times, “I don’t love him anymore” but also “I don’t mind living with him. Letting the audience know that Lisa not merely a woman who has fallen out of love, as one does, but that love means nothing to her, she is perfectly happy to use the man that loves her for the comforts of his largesse.

It is clearly the opinion of The Room that it is wrong that Lisa has fallen out of love with Johnny. While, in the real world, there are any number of reasons that one person may fall out-of-love with another, the only reason that Lisa can give for not loving Johnny is that he is “boring”. Lisa makes her feeling known in the film’s first scene between herself and Claudette:

LISA: I don’t love him anymore

CLAUDETTE: Why don’t you love him anymore? Tell me?

LISA: He’s so boring.

CLAUDETTE: You’ve known him for over five years. You’re engaged. You said you loved him. He supports you, he provides for you, and darling, you can’t support yourself. He’s a wonderful man, and he loves you very much, and his position is very secure and he told me he plans to buy you a house

LISA: That’s why he’s so boring!

The list of reasons that Claudette gives as to why Lisa should stay with Johnny not only serve as naked exposition, but also serve to characterize Lisa as a monster when she says that these things make him boring.

That Lisa does not appreciate how wonderful Johnny is to her, and her decision to carry on an affair with Mark are clearly, in the opinion of The Room, the qualities of a petulant, ungrateful child. When Lisa says “I don’t love him anymore” she has the tenor of a bratty teenager who does not appreciate all that her parents have done for her. Troublingly, it is presented as though, for all the reasons listed by Claudette, that Lisa owes her love to Johnny, she has told Johnny that she loves him, they have become engaged, and there are no take-backs when it comes to love.

In keeping with her sociopathic characterization, Lisa is a liar and manipulator in addition to being a cheater. In the sole scene in which it appears that Lisa is making an attempt to be a conscientious partner, we find that her seeming kindness is a ruse, masking a plan to trick Johnny into abandoning his values, all so she has an incident to cite while defaming him. In the scene, Johnny comes home, frustrated by his mistreatment at the hands of his superiors at work, Lisa, playing the role of doting partner, announces that she has ordered pizza (half Canadian bacon with pineapple, half artichoke pesto, light on the cheese, an order so strange and specific it could only be a favorite of the filmmaker). Lisa then insists that Johnny have a drink with her; he initially protests that he does not drink, but he relents when Lisa insists, “If you love me, you’ll drink this”. One cocktail, something that appears to be a vile combination of white and brown liquors, turns into many and soon both Johnny and Lisa are stumbling drunk; later, Lisa will tell Claudette “Mom, he’s not what you think he is; he didn’t get his promotion, and he got drunk last night, and he hit me.” This statement, used by Lisa in an attempt to justify her disdain for her fiancée, is a combination of truth, partial truth, and outright lie; were Johnny/Wiseau to tell this story it would almost certainly be worded “I didn’t get the promotion because my bosses are bastards, Lisa got me drunk last night, and I’ve never hit anybody”, such is the devilry of Lisa, she will unremorsefully bend the truth to paint herself as a sympathetic figure.

The Room

Lisa’s greatest crime is not that she lies, it is not that she cheats, it is that she does not love Johnny; this is what makes her a sociopath. None of the other characters, even those who are complicit in (Mark), privy to (Claudette), or delighted by (Michelle) Lisa’s philandering, have a bad word to say when it comes to Johnny. Wiseau goes to great lengths to ensure that the audience knows that only a monster would not love his protagonist; Mark repeatedly calls Johnny his “best friend”, Claudette repeatedly calls him “a good man”, and even Michelle, who we only briefly see interact with Johnny, tells Lisa “I’m going to have a hard time forgiving you” when she tells her cheating friend to come clean. Every character in The Room, with the exception of drug dealer Chris-R (who, it could be argued, is simply trying to keep his business on track), is Lisa’s moral superior, simply because they adore Johnny; it is a sociopath’s conception of a sociopath: a person who does not love me.

In the end Lisa is guilty of being a woman who wants more than a good man, or any one man, can give her. She explains her raison d’etre to Michelle in a scene prior to the climactic party:

LISA: You know, I really loved Johnny at first. Everything’s changed. I need more from life than what Johnny can give me. Suddenly my eyes are wide open and I can see everything so clearly. I want it all.

MICHELLE: You think you can get it all from Mark?

LISA: If he can’t give me what I want, somebody else will.

MICHELLE: Lisa, you’re sounding just like your mother. You’re being so manipulative.

LISA: You know what? You can learn something from me. You have to take as much as you can. You have to live, live, live. Don’t worry about me I have everything covered.

This is The Room’s philosophy in a nutshell: if a woman is unhappy with her partner, it because she is a monster.

Lisa’s statement regarding Mark, “If he can’t give me what I want, somebody else will”, serves dual purposes; not only does it solidify the characterization of Lisa as uncaring man-eater, but it serves to absolve Mark of culpability in his affair with Lisa. Throughout nearly the entirety of The Room, with the exception of the party scene, Mark is treated as an innocent who has been seduced, passive participant in his affair with Lisa; he knows what the is doing is wrong but the power of Lisa’s sexuality is too great for him to resist.

The Room

From the beginning of the affair, Lisa is completely pro-active and Mark is entirely passive; Lisa calls Mark (we do not know at this time that Mark is Johnny’s best friend), and demands to see him the next day and he complies (not before noting that Lisa has been “very happy with Johnny”), without question, apparently without suspicion even though there is no hint that Mark and Lisa routinely spend time together, alone. When Mark arrives at the appointed hour, Lisa has set the mood for seduction, on which Mark is slow to pick up, asking “I mean the candles, the music, the sexy dress, I mean, what’s going on here?” Lisa informs him explicitly “I like you very much, loverboy”, a line which, in the language of The Room, is impossibly sexy. But Mark initially resists:

MARK: Johnny’s my best friend. You’re going to be married next month.

LISA: Forget about Johnny. This is between you and me.

MARK: I don’t think so. I’m leaving now.

LISA: Please don’t leave. Please don’t leave. I need you, I love, you, I don’t want to get married anymore. I don’t love Johnny. I dream about you I need you to make love to me.

MARK: I don’t think so. Everything’s going to be fine, I promise.

Here Mark demonstrates a greater sense of responsibility for Lisa and Johnny’s relationship than does Lisa, but his resolve is quickly broken and they are making love on the stairs. Even if it is not reflected in the filmmaking, which uses the same soft-porn aesthetic as the recent Johnny/Lisa sex scene, the location is undoubtedly meant to relay a sense of urgency (one can hardly imagine a place less comfortable for coitus than a spiral staircase), an animal carnality, to the coupling of Mark and Lisa; Mark is acting out of a primal instinct, he does not want to betray his friend, but he cannot help but do so. Mark does not come to his senses until after the deed is done, asking Lisa “Why did you do this to me? Why? Johnny’s my best friend.” That Lisa does not, in any way, admonish Mark with an “it takes two”, is The Room telling the audience that Mark’s feeling is correct: This is Lisa’s fault and Lisa’s fault alone.

The way Wiseau treats Mark’s character is as a friend one wants to forgive for having absconded with a their lover. Mark shows remorse for his transgressions, even if he does not shoulder the blame for them. At the film’s end it is Mark who chastises Lisa; as they kneel over the body of the recently departed Johnny, Lisa searches for solace in Mark’s embrace

LISA: I’ve lost him, but I still have you, right? Right?

MARK: You don’t have me. You’ll never have me. You killed him.

LISA: Mark, we’re free to be together. I love you. I love you!

MARK: Tramp! You killed him. You’re the cause of all of this. I don’t love you. Get out of my life, you bitch!

Again, where there should be a reality check for Mark, both for his lack of personal responsibility, and his use of overtly sexist language, there is none. Because in the reality of The Room, Mark is innocent; Lisa is responsible not only for the dissolution of her own relationship with Johnny, but with that of the beautiful friendship, near brotherhood, between Johnny and Mark.

The Room

While The Room is a cynical, tragic take on romantic relationships, it is also a celebration of male friendship. This is why Mark is never held responsible for his betrayal of Johnny. There are essentially two Marks in The Room, one who drives the plot by having an affair with his best friend’s fiancée, one who is just a “best friend”. Mark’s affair with Lisa has very little effect upon his day-to-day friendship with Johnny; we see them work out together, toss “the ‘ol pigskin” around, function as an action-team in the apprehension of Chris-R, go out for coffee, chat frankly about women and sex, and gently tease their nerd friend Peter. The scenes in The Room in which Wiseau clearly takes the greatest pleasure are those in which guys are just being guys. Through Johnny, Wiseau positions himself as the ringleader of a tight group of male friends: Big Brother Johnny, Cool Guy Mark, Egghead Peter, Goofball Mike, and Little Brother/Mascot Denny, it’s the kind of group of which any man would consider himself lucky to be a part. All of the scenes of male bonding have the feel of an alien’s approximation of male friendship, gleaned from American comedies, what is supposed to feel natural feels wholly unnatural due, in large part, to most of the film’s claustrophobic spaces and Wiseau’s unwieldy dialogue. When the guys play catch it is often at a distance of only a couple feet, when they call Peter a chicken their impressions utilize an unorthodox “cheep-cheep” rather than the traditional “bawk-bawk” , and wise-cracks are delivered with the cadence of a joke but without any discernable punch-line. Still, there can be no doubt that Wiseau holds the friendships between men in the highest esteem.

Wiseau does not give the same regard to female relationships in The Room, the most prominent of which is Lisa’s relationship with her mother, Claudette. Each of the scenes of conversation between Lisa and Claudette share a single theme: Claudette counseling Lisa that she should use Johnny for his money and generosity rather than betraying him. Where Lisa is petulant and foolish, Claudette is callous and calculating, she does not believe in love, a different type of female monster. Claudette’s feelings are summed up late in The Room’s second act:

CLAUDETTE: Its not right, Lisa; I still think you should marry Johnny. Now, you can’t live on love. You need financial security.

LISA: But I’m not happy! He thinks I’m gonna marry him next month. He’s a fool.

CLAUDETTE: You expect to be happy. I haven’t been happy since I married my husband. I didn’t even want to marry your father.

LISA: You never told me that!

CLAUDETTE: Well it’s true. All men are assholes. Men and women use and abuse each other all the time, there’s nothing worn with it. Marriage has nothing to do with love.

Claudette’s view on romantic partnership is cynical to say the least. She is, perhaps, a vision of what Lisa will become: a serial user of generous men. This terror of a future mother-in-law is meant to be antithetical to trusting, romantic Johnny, but, in several cases, The Room actually agrees with Claudette. Claudette, like virtually every other character in The Room loves Johnny, calling him “good” and “wonderful” in multiple instances. When she lists the ways in which Johnny has done well by Lisa, why she should stay with the man she no longer loves, the film agrees with her. Claudette and Wiseau agree that Lisa is stupid and immature for betraying Johnny, the fundamental difference in their views is that while Claudette feels that Lisa should stay with Johnny because he is a good provider, Wiseau thinks that Lisa should love Johnny because he is a good provider.

There are a few places in Claudette’s characterization that seem like they must have been drawn directly from Wiseau’s past: first, Claudette’s feud with her brother Harold over possession of their parents’ house and, second, Claudette’s complaint about Johnny’s refusal to loan money to her friend Shirley Hamilton. The house situation functions as a way to show that Claudette is, as all women in The Room’s view, relentlessly self-serving. Claudette tells Lisa that Harold is angling for a share of the house asking “Who does he think he is?” it is Lisa, in a rare moment of moral fortitude, who scolds her mother with “He’s your brother!” But familial relationships are of no interest to a harpy like Claudette who responds, “Fifteen years ago we agreed that house belongs to me. Now the value of the house is going up and he’s seeing dollar signs.” No mention is made of any money Harold may have received in exchange for his share of the house, this is simply a typically cutthroat woman, devoid of empathy or sentimentality. The Shirley Hamilton anecdote, in which Claudette informs Lisa that Johnny has refused to help her friend Shirley with the down payment on a new house is meant to show us that Claudette is every bit the ingrate that Lisa is; like mother, like daughter. The situation described is more than a little strange; one would think that Claudette would know that asking her daughter’s boyfriend to give (not loan, but give) money to one of her friends would be wholly inappropriate, but it is presented here as another sign of how women do not appreciate Johnny’s, well established, generosity. Both of these instances are specific enough that they are almost certainly drawn from experience, but they are almost certainly slanted, or re-contextualized, to ensure that there is no way in which one could reasonably side with the woman in either argument.

The Room’s most bizarre subplot (or second most, in contention with Denny and Chris-R’s beef) is that of Claudette’s fight against breast cancer. Claudette’s cancer diagnosis is brought up only once during the film’s runtime; Claudette informs Lisa that she “definitely has breast cancer”, Lisa calmly responds “Look, don’t worry about it. Everything will be fine. They’re curing lots of people every day.” Claudette agrees saying “I’m sure I’ll be alright”. With Chris-R incarcerated, Claudette’s cancer should represent the greatest problem facing any of The Room’s characters, but it is paid only the most cursory of lip-service; this is almost certainly because it is a woman’s problem. The Room is almost totally unconcerned with the problems of its female characters, at least those problems that are not directly related to Johnny. It seems particularly telling that the form of cancer that Claudette has is breast cancer, rather then another form of the disease affecting equal numbers of men and women.

Lisa’s professional struggles are given even less notice than Claudette’s cancer; only a single mention,  “ You’re right, the computer business is too competitive”. The “computer business” line comes on the tail of a lengthy description of Johnny’s troubles at work and goes entirely unacknowledged by Lisa’s “loving” partner. This is the scene of the film in which the greatest, or only, attempt to make Lisa a likeable character is made, not because she is frustrated with her work situation, but because she is there to help Johnny cope with his. The fact that Lisa’s “the computer business is too competitive” line is prefaced with “you’re right”, suggests that when these characters have discussed the issue of Lisa’s working in the past, Johnny has attempted to dissuade Lisa from trying to support herself; the notion of her holding a job is just a silly flight of fancy; Lisa should be happy staying at home, ordering pizza and arranging surprise parties, waiting on the couch for her man to come home and shower her with gifts.

The Room

Were The Room a film made with a more fair and balanced eye toward its female characters, one could sympathize with Lisa and her decision to pursue an affair with Mark; Lisa’s business is failing, her mother has cancer, she is financially dependent upon her partner, having an affair with the hunky best friend of her lover could be her way of taking control of just one aspect of her life, a decision she makes all by herself. It could also be a way for her to act out against Johnny’s, supposedly benign, patronage. Additionally, Lisa might be looking for a connection to someone of her own age and experience, finding this in Mark; Johnny is clearly older than his friends and lover (Wiseau the actor appears to be at least twenty years older than his counterparts but the character is probably more like five to seven years older) hence the usually somewhat, sometimes heavily, patronizing tone he takes while interacting with them. It does not seem out of the question that Lisa mwy like to pursue a relationship in which she is the more dominant partner, hence her seduction of the pliable Mark. Alas, The Room is told from Wiseau’s regressive worldview: Lisa’s problems and concerns are insignificant, there is no excuse for her behavior. Lisa is, plainly and simply as Johnny put’s it, a “bitch”.

The Room’s third female lead, Michelle, functions largely as a means by which Wiseau can portray his idea of female friendship. What we know about Michelle is limited: she is dating Mike, the two of them routinely use the titular “room” for romantic trysts, she is, seemingly, Lisa’s only friend, and she knows about, and is thrilled by, Lisa’s affair with Mark. Despite Michelle’s tangential relationship to Johnny, the former character is largely defined by the latter: her only subplot, the single scene of chocolate-eating and making out with Mike, is meant solely to highlight how generous Johnny is with his apartment. Beyond that single sequence, Michelle is simply a kind of collaborator in Lisa and Mark’s affair, someone who is delighted and thrilled by Johnny’s betrayal.

To her “credit”, Michelle is against the Lisa-Mark affair from the beginning; after all, any woman in her right mind could see that Johnny is perfect and would have to be a fool to hurt him. But because Michelle cannot dissuade her friend from her ongoing betrayal, she clearly decides that she might as well enjoy the ride. When Michelle tells Lisa “You’re being so manipulative”, it is not necessarily a reprimand; Michelle delivers the line with a smile on her face, suggesting that she is getting a near-sexual thrill from her friend’s indiscretion. Michelle is, in fact, the only firsthand witness to Lisa and Mark’s canoodling, walking into Johnny and Lisa’s apartment as Mark struggles to pull a shirt on over his bare chest, and making note of his unzipped pants. Michelle’s only reaction here is to chuckle and tell the lovers that they are “too much”. The conversations between Michelle and Lisa are the conception of a cuckolded man’s tortured imagination: a conspiracy of bitchy women plotting his humiliation.

All of The Room is, in fact, a cuckolded man’s re-imagined, near-fantasy, of his betrayal: he is all good, she is all bad, he has done nothing to deserve this treatment, both of his betrayers owe him greater loyalty, a great number of their friends know the main character has been cuckolded prior to that information being revealed to him. The idea that many of one’s acquaintances have known that their partner has been unfaithful lends to the feeling humiliating foolishness that accompanies the revelation that one has been cheated upon. That Michelle, Claudette, Peter, Steven and, one assumes Mike, all of whom profess deep fondness for Johnny, would be aware of Mark and Lisa’s affair, and that not one of them would inform the jilted man, is just one of The Room’s unrealistic details, but it serves the fantasy of betrayal; our hero has not just been betrayed by his partner and his friend, but by the whole world; this fantasy betrayal is capped off by that most self-pitying of notions: “They’d be sorry if I killed myself”.

Johnny’s suicide at The Room’s conclusion is fantasy suicide that anyone might imagine while feeling hurt and unappreciated by loved ones; after wrecking the apartment in a violent rage, Johnny produces a previously unseen handgun (one assumes that Chris-R’s weapon was turned over to the police), puts the barrel in his mouth and pulls the trigger. The results are immediate: Lisa and Mark run into the room and immediately realize what they have done and begin sobbing, Mark repents first, chastising Lisa for wanting to continue their relationship in the wake of Johnny’s death, then Denny arrives and shames both Mark and Lisa for their betrayal heretofore living saint. For Johnny it is the best of all possible outcomes; his suicide ends both his Earthly suffering and Lisa’s relationship with Mark. Our hero loved Lisa not wisely but too well, this world was never good enough for one as beautiful as Johnny; the audience imagines that a well-attended funeral will follow, with even the local florist coming to pay their deep respects.

Perhaps the most disturbing element in The Room is the manner in which the film addresses domestic abuse. When Lisa tells Michelle and Claudette that Johnny has hit her, she is, in no uncertain terms, lying. In a film as deeply misogynistic as The Room, domestic abuse is something that cruel women lie about in order to poison his relationships with their mutual friends, and justify unfaithfulness. In a later scene, when the lovers are arguing, Johnny pushes Lisa gently onto the overstuffed couch; this has the feel of an instance of domestic abuse as explained by the abuser, “I didn’t hit her, I just pushed her onto the couch”, never mind that Johnny is using his superior strength to control Lisa, to keep her from walking away from him, he has not hit her. The scene is capped by Johnny telling Lisa “Don’t worry about it, I still love you.”

Lisa may be lying about being hit by Johnny but he certainly is an abuser, even if The Room does not present him as such. The gentle push to the couch may be the extent of his physical violence, but Johnny’s emotional and psychological abuse of Lisa is in evidence: Item 1: The aforementioned reference to Johnny’s attempts to dissuade Lisa from working, hinting that Johnny wants Lisa to remain financially dependent upon him. Item 2: During their argument Johnny shouts, “You’re a part of my life, you’re everything, could not go on without you, Lisa.” Here Johnny is controlling Lisa by telling her that he will kill himself if she leaves which, of course, he does. Item 3: When Johnny first suspects that Lisa is unfaithful (because he overheard her saying, explicitly, “I had sex with someone else”) he rigs a tape recorded to the telephone, that he might be able to present evidence of her betrayal. This is an overt denial of Lisa’s right to privacy, and the action of a paranoid sociopath. Each of these items are presented as completely reasonable action for a man to take when faced with an unfaithful partner, Johnny’s abuse of Lisa, not that The Room would ever call it that, is totally understandable within the text.

In terms of The Room’s seeming sympathy for domestic abusers, the most damning evidence comes in the form of an anecdote Mark relates to Johnny during one of their friendly rap sessions.

MARK:  Yeah man, you never know. People are very strange these days. I used to know a girl, she had a dozen guys. One of them found out about it, beat her up so bad she ended up in a hospital on Guerrero Street.

JOHNNY: (Laughing) What a story, Mark!

This story comes immediately before Mark’s charming description of women as “too smart”, “flat-out stupid” or “just evil”; and Johnny amusement where there should be abject horror, informs the audience that The Room definitely does not have its heart in the right place. This poor woman’s hospitalization is presented as just desserts for a serial cheater, Mark’s “people are very strange these days” refers to the woman with “a dozen guys”, not the guy who “beat her up so bad she ended up in a hospital on Guerrero Street”. Greg Sestero’s fascinating, hilarious account of his experiences with The Room and its deranged auteur, The Disaster Artist, describes the shooting of the rooftop scene:

For reasons neither I nor anyone else could gather, every time I got to the part in Mark’s story about the woman being beaten up, Tommy would laugh warmly before delivering his line. It was unsettling. It was disturbing. Take after take, Tommy/Johnny would react to the story of this imaginary woman’s hospitalization with fond and accepting laughter (Sestero, et al. 2013. 261)

The Room

There is doubt that The Room’s creator and protagonist are of one mind on the topic of domestic abuse: the promiscuous woman got what was coming to her.

The TV and print ads for The Room feature a review, written by Wiseau, himself, that reads, “A film with the passion of Tennessee Williams”; while it is certainly ambitious to compare oneself to, arguably, the greatest American playwright, the self-review is accurate. Had the review read “a film with the artistry of Tennessee Williams” it would be woefully incorrect, but The Room has nothing if it does not have passion. Wiseau throws all of his limited acting ability into the character of Johnny, shouting his most emotional lines to the heavens, especially his, now iconic “You’re tearing me apart Lisa!”. Wiseau is a known lover of Tennessee Williams’ work, particularly A Streetcar Named Desire (In The Disaster Artist, Sestero outlines a drama class rendition of Streetcar’s most famous scene in which Wiseau simply shouted “Stella!” a dozen times instead of reading his lines) and one can see how The Room is Wiseau’s attempt to capture the heat and emotions of Williams’ play. One can also see how The Room is a film made by a lover of Streetcar who perceives the brutish Stanley Kowalski as a completely sympathetic character rather than a drunk, abusive, rapist. As such, The Room is Wiseau’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with him as the good guy Stanley, and Lisa as an evil Blanche.

Strangely, there has been some controversy over who truly directed The Room, Sandy Schklair, credited as the film’s script supervisor has, in recent years, begun to claim credit for The Room’s direction; it is a claim that Wiseau categorically denies. Not only do both men take credit for directing The Room but also for conceiving the film as comedy. Wiseau claims that The Room was intended to be “black comedy” but he did not apply this label until after witnessing audience reactions to the film. Schklair, claims to have subverted Wiseau’s wishes by covertly shooting The Room as a comedy rather than the intended drama. He is quoted in an article by Clark Collis, “ Tommy never, ever, ever, ever, saw the humor that we were throwing into it, I would go home and scream with laughter, because he just did not know what was happening at all.” (Collis, et al. 2011. 60) Neither man’s claim is particularly believable.

No matter what Wiseau may claim, The Room does not function any more successfully as a “black comedy” than it does as high drama; he has surely picked the retroactive label because it is a film with a dark subject matter that makes audiences laugh. But it is not The Room’s subject matter, or any “jokes” therein, that makes its audiences howl with laughter, it is ineptitude of the film’s execution and the outlandish performance of its lead actor. Schklair’s claim that he intentionally converted The Room into comedy through directorial choices is equally unlikely; from beginning to end The Room seems to have been directed with near complete indifference. There are hardly any camera moves of which to speak, there is no perspective choices, the camera seems to simply have been pointed toward the action, focused (mostly) and rolled until “cut” was called. The cast’s performances do not seem to have been shaped in any way by a director, rather, they have the appearance of a group of actors trying to do their best with questionable material (they were). The only scenes of The Room in which a director could claim to be making aesthetic choices to heighten the humor are the love scenes, which were shot after Schklair had resigned from the production.

Even if it were true that Schklair had, intentional comedy or not, directed The Room, there is no doubt that authorship of the film belongs to Tommy Wiseau. As producer, distributor, and star of the film, Wiseau’s mark is on every frame. It is Wiseau who has made The Room special, beloved of cult movie with fans the world over. Credit for The Room’s success belongs not to its director, or rather its direction, but to its script and star.

Wiseau is the first actor to enter the frame in The Room and, at screenings of the film inevitably gets the first laugh of the night with his first line, “Hi babe, I have something for you”.  There is nothing inherently funny about a man coming home to his partner and announcing “Hi babe, I have something for you!” but Wiseau’s slurred, oddly-accented delivery, “Hai, babe, I’ve something for you!” coupled with his, decidedly non-leading man looks (a popular and hilarious, if fairly cruel, description of Wiseau’s looks is “an action figure that was put in the microwave for a few seconds”) combine beautifully for comic effect. Had Wiseau not been involved at every level of The Room’s production (the only way The Room ever could have made it to the screen) and had simply written its script it is unlikely, verging on impossible, that he would have been cast as the romantic lead, which makes The Room perhaps the ultimate vanity piece; Wiseau’s self-regard is evident in every frame of The Room.

While The Room may draw comparisons to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, the previous consensus “best bad movie”, it has more in common with is 1953’s cross-dresser exploitation film, Glen or Glenda, which featured the director, who had a fondness for angora sweaters, and himself, in the title role. Both The Room and Glen or Glenda are films by writer/directors of, at best, limited talent, with said director in the role of protagonist, and are, ultimately, quite revealing of the filmmaker’s thoughts and interests. However, there is some guilt in laughing at the ineptitude of Glen or Glenda as it is an earnest attempt by an artist to shed light on a prescient issue, the same could be said for  a more recent “best worst” contender, James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror, which, though near-unwatchable sci-fi/horror calls for increased environmental consciousness. The Room seeks only to call greater attention to its filmmaker and star and, as such, laughing at its artlessness is an utter joy. Misogyny has never been this intoxicating.

 

WORKS CITED

Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Moviehead. Dir. James Nguyen. 2008. Digital Video

Bissell, Tom. “Cinema Crudite”. Harper’s Magazine. Aug. 2010. 58-65.

Print.

Collis, Clark.Crazy Cult of The Room”. Entertainment Weekly. 12/19/2008.

32-37. Print

Collis, Clark and Dan Snierson. “The Battle Over the Worst Movie Ever Made”.

Entertainment Weekly. 2/18/11. 60-61. Print

Citizen Kane. RKO. Dir. Orson Welles. 1941. Film

Glen or Glenda. Screen Classics. Dir. Edward Wood. 1953. Film

Plan 9 From Outer Space. Reynolds Pictures, inc. Dir. Edward Wood. 1959. Film

The Room. Wiseau Films. Dir. Tommy Wiseau. 2003. Film.

Sestero, Greg and Tom Bissell The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad     Movie Ever Made. New York: Simon & Schuster.2013. Print

Tobias, Scott “The New Cult Canon: The Roomavclub.com. The A.V. Club. 3/26/09

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New American Library. 1990.    Print.

One thought on “The Room: “The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies”

  • May 1, 2016 at 11:46 am
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    Wonderful work! Thank you for saving me the pain. Why, Frank at TRF, couldn’t you have sounded the alarm before I wasted time and money on “Lost in Translation” (never trust reviews from middle aged white guys who really want to believe a Scarjo totally-woulda with them)?

    Another thing I’d love to see Frank address – rape played for laughs – as in “Young Frankenstein” and “This is the End”.

    Reply

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