The first time I watched The Room—"the Citizen Kane of bad movies," and the subject of The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s adaptation of the book about the making of the film—was my freshman year of college, in the common area of my residence hall. Someone had purchased the DVD on Amazon for a few bucks; we’d all smoked some pot, probably in the stairwell; sandwiches were likely ordered. Then, we’d gathered around the tiny TV in the room’s uncomfortable sofas and chairs and laughed our asses off for the duration of the movie—repeating the process, in some form or another, a handful of times over the next few months.
I realize that my experience with the movie is somewhat of a universal one—either in dorm rooms, or parents’ basements, or the midnight screenings that would cement the film’s cult status. It’s become the type of movie you watch with friends, on a lark or as a rite of passage, to revel in the shared knowledge of an unmistakably bad piece of art. You watch it ironically, sure, but also with sincere curiosity: How did this come to be? Why does this exist? What am I doing watching it right now?
Last week, in preparation for the premier of The Disaster Artist on Friday, I re-watched The Room, in its entirety, for the first time since my freshman year of college, seven years ago. Plot-wise, the movie is pretty simple: Johnny is marrying Lisa. Lisa cheats on Johnny with his best friend, Mark. Johnny finds out, and, in a moment of high melodrama, shoots himself. Despite this relatively straightforward structure, The Room makes absolutely no sense. The characters’ motivations change on a whim. There are recycled soft-core sex scenes. Side-plots, like one about Johnny’s mentee, Denny, who has an unspecified drug habit, likes football and loves Lisa, are dismissed as quickly as they’re introduced. Then, of course, there’s Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic director and star, whose background (and finances) are still the subject of some speculation. With an unidentified accent—sort of French, mostly Eastern European—and a decidedly alien mien, he fails to even loosely resemble a normal human being. Most of his lines were clearly recorded in post-production. His performance is, without a doubt, one of the worst and most oblivious in the history of film.
Like everyone else who’s seen the film—and later,the YouTube clips—I was watching for specific moments of particular horribleness: “Oh, hi Mark”; the recycled sex scene; Lisa’s inexplicable neck bulge; the football scenes; “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”; and so on. I’d forgotten, however, about some of the other less obvious aspects of the movie, like Lisa’s mother’s dry admission that she has cancer, the excessive establishing shots and the fact that it’s hardly ever nighttime (as a viewer, you have little sense of how much time has passed from one scene to the next—hours? Days? Weeks?—the result of which is both disorienting and downright hell-ish).
But where those first college-era viewings brought pure, unbridled joy, this latest viewing also brought some strange waves of sadness. After all, to watch The Room is to watch a genuine failure; knowing Wiseau actually believed that his film would be taken seriously is equally hilarious and depressing. As Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s co-star and the author of The Disaster Artist, reveals in his memoir, Wiseau was fascinated with all things American—especially those archetypical American males, James Dean and Marlon Brando—and refused to discuss his birthplace. The Room, viewed in this context, plays like Wiseau’s generic, watered-down regurgitation of American culture: the guys play football (even if they don’t know how); the youth are tormented by drugs (just plain “drugs,” not pot or coke or heroin); men bring home flowers for their loved ones; old people have cancer (specifically, “breast cancer,” which, in light of its corporatization, would certainly appear to be the most American of cancers). The props feel like props, the establishing shots like stock images; Johnny’s apartment is less a home than a model home. Even the title of the movie reeks of fungible profundity. Its melodrama is that of an American soap, minus a built-in cognizance of its soapiness. The result is Americanness-qua-kitsch, an off-brand version of a prototypical American movie that, in its fundamental striving to be American, is tragically and uniquely American itself.
I’m sure that my growth in the intervening years—from a college student with everything laid out before him to an optimistic, if not somewhat jaded young adult—between my last viewing and this latest viewing are to account for this new reading. Perhaps watching someone genuinely fail at something is more potent once you yourself have genuinely failed at something. Then again, it’s unclear whether Wiseau has really failed. As Bilge Ebiri concludes in his review of The Disaster Artist, “the failure of The Room merely means that Tommy Wiseau gives up his dream of achieving fame through accomplishment for the greater glory of achieving fame through notoriety. He abandons the guise of tormented artist and assumes the mantle of a self-aware huckster.”
Wiseau made The Room in thrall to America and Americans, with the aim, one can assume, of truly becoming one himself. Years later, it seems he’s finally gotten his wish.