Twenty years after its release, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has an enduring cultural foothold that few actually good films can match. Of those released in its year, only The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Kill Bill Vol. 1 — a Best Picture winner based on the most valuable IP for nerds and a Quentin Tarantino joint, respectively — can really be said to occupy a larger place in the public consciousness, though even they can’t match the ubiquity of Wiseau at repertory cinemas across the country. While a screening of a 2003 film like, say, Johnnie To’s Running on Karma might be a once-in-a-decade event in most major cities, and Return will reliably screen yearly, The Room plays once a month in some cities. The only movie easier to see theatrically is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
What makes this dominance over midnight showtimes frustrating is that The Room sucks, and is beloved because it sucks. Cataloging its deficiencies or recounting its ridiculous plot is unnecessary, with every notable moment (read: nearly every scene) having been taken out of context and circulated as memes, seemingly just as funny each and every time to legions of fans. There’s Wiseau’s melodramatic exclamation that Lisa is tearing him apart, a ludicrous football scene, and reference to “me underwears.” The film’s sex scenes play like Showtime softcore warped through a layer of accidental dream logic, and God help anyone named Mark, cursed to be greeted with “Oh, hi” for the rest of time. The total incompetence of The Room’s script, production, and, most of all, its performances is easy to laugh at. Frustration with the film’s popularity is not meant to deny that it’s funny or to insist that a case of beer and a copy of the film wasn’t a great way to spend a night in your buddy’s dorm room a decade ago. It was, and it still is. But the popularity of laughing at The Room is symptomatic of a larger trend in movie fandom: the cult of “so bad it’s good,” which flattens the individual character of all such films into one homogenous, irony-primed whole.
The Room is far from the first movie (or the most recent) to be treated as a cult object because it’s laughably terrible, though it has surpassed even Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space as the de facto king of the bad movie experience. While audiences have been laughing at bad movies since the dawn of cinema, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 brought the experience to nationwide cable in the ‘90s, The Room reignited the passion for this content in the 21st century. Over the past decade, podcasts about bad movies like How Did This Get Made and The Flophouse have largely been more popular than ones about good movies; event screenings of movies like Troll 2 or Samurai Cop have been ubiquitous at some theater chains; and in 2006, the Mystery Science Theater guys started RiffTrax, audio commentary versions of their usual schtick available online (and also sometimes playing in cinemas). “So bad it’s good” is an industry now, to the point that any given movie has more of a chance at a life beyond its release if it is terrible. Much like The Room, 2017’s Gotti is better remembered than plenty of perfectly fine movies from its year. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at bad movies, really, but it is no doubt a simplistic, incurious form of movie fandom, if not always mean-spirited. Worse, this cult will routinely rope in films that aren’t bad, but just old or made on the cheap; in addition to The Room, Birdemic, and Plan 9, RiffTrax has produced tracks for Mothra, Starship Troopers, Carnival of Souls, and, somehow, Night of the Living Dead. The spirit of laughing at movies proves so infectious that it can’t help but infect how some audiences have begun to treat all movies as objects to riff on.
At the center of The Room’s cult is its creator, Tommy Wiseau, who shows up to Room screenings to sign autographs and sell his brand of underwear. Much has been written about his mysterious nature, strange looks, and unplaceable accent. Perhaps not enough has been said about Wiseau as a grifter. Last decade, an Adam Rosen piece in The Atlantic suggested that bad filmmakers like Wiseau and Wood should be considered outsider artists, those whose work is not only outside the mainstream, but so out of touch with the conventions of classically good art that it registers as its own category, successful on its own terms. But while Wood fits the bill, as do prolific weirdos like Neil Breen and Damon Packard, Wiseau is a desperate wannabe, insistent that you were supposed to laugh at his film all along and satisfied with trying to find other business ventures in lieu of producing new work, of which he’s made very little. If costar Greg Sestero’s account of the film’s production, as detailed in his non-fiction book The Disaster Artist, is to be believed, Wiseau, whom Sestero met in acting class and who mysteriously came up with six million dollars to fund a movie, comes off at the very least as a bad friend, and at worst as a megalomaniacal director impulsively steering the production into utter disarray — one such whim included the idea to film the movie simultaneously on digital and on film with two cameras, for no discernable reason. Sets were dismantled and rebuilt the next day. Cast and crew changes were nearly as regular as new terrible ideas from the director. Sestero even compares Wiseau to Tom Ripley, a man with seemingly no past who takes on identities to benefit himself at the expense of others. The production of The Room recalls horror stories about working with demanding auteurs like Hitchcock or Kubrick, but instead of producing one of the great works of the film canon, Wiseau put all this abuse into a legendary piece of shit.
The film version of The Disaster Artist is much kinder to Wiseau, portraying the aforementioned set troubles as the delightful quirks of a passionate weirdo. Maybe it’s easier to sell the legend; maybe wannabe auteur James Franco sees Wiseau as a kindred spirit. Given that Wiseau was made to pay damages to the makers of a documentary whose release he attempted to block because it wasn’t kind enough to the director and his work, it’s also possible that the same attitude infected the making of The Disaster Artist. Whatever the cause, the film bears the mark of a filmmaker becoming too friendly with his subject to make anything approaching honest. Were this a sensible world, The Disaster Artist would be the (cowardly) last word on The Room, but a recent interview with Bob Odenkirk revealed a remake is in the works.
If a remake is seeking to make a more dramatically competent version of The Room, it’s worth looking at what’s there behind the baffling filmmaking and the “oh hi, doggie” line readings. When people laugh at The Room, are they only laughing at the incompetence of one film or does it in some way operate as parody? The plot of The Room is not so different from that of any number of soapy dramas. It’s a film about infidelity, domestic violence, questioned allegiances, and any number of common tropes. To approach it generously, Wiseau’s incompetence — complemented by his amateur cast — arguably strips away the trappings of good moviemaking to reveal that plenty of normal movies, especially those middlebrow adult dramas always out of favor with young people, are worthy of derision. Had Friedberg and Seltzer ever made a film called Drama Movie, it’s not hard to imagine it would bear resemblance to The Room. But remaking The Room is a fool’s errand, a one-joke project that misses what’s really underneath all the hilarious garbage: the foul, misogynistic cry of a buffoon desperate for Hollywood’s attention. Twenty years after the release of The Room, it’s time to move on.
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