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The Room

It Came from LA

Tommy Wiseau in The Room

They say that the movie business is recession proof, that no matter how bad things get people always manage to scrape together a few bucks for entertainment. This current recession must be even worse than we think, because for the rest of the spring all Hollywood has in store for us is a handful of brainless movies made for the most undemanding of viewers.

Still, someone in my line of work has to write about something. So off to the DVD pile I went in search of something off the beaten track, something I felt readers might like to know about.

Something like…The Room.

The media savvy among you might already have heard about this, or seen clips form it on YouTube. It has been playing once-monthly midnight shows in Los Angeles for five years now, to audiences that react with an interactive fervor that recalls the heyday of Rocky Horror. It’s available on DVD, and while you can’t get it from NetFlix or at local rental outlets, you can buy it for under $10 at Amazon.

Get it. It’s worth every penny.

The Room was written, directed, produced and executive produced by one Tommy Wiseau, He is not one of those auteurs who is embarrassed to see his name onscreen too many times: the opening credits contain his name so many times that I was reminded of the classic short “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” (“Written by Marv Newland.” “Produced by Marv Newland.” “Choreography by Marv Newland.” “Marv Newland produced by Mr. & Mrs. Newland.”)

A wash of synthesized pseudo-orchestral bombast accompanies the introduction of the film’s main characters, Johnny and his fiancée Lisa. He comes home from work with a present, a new red negligee, cueing the first of many softcore sex scenes (though they don’t get down to it until neighbor teen Denny gets out of their bedroom. He thinks they’re having a pillow fight and wants to join in.)

Despite such evidence of connubial bliss, things are apparently not well at Johnny’s house. Lisa tells his best friend Mark that she is bored with Johnny and wants to be with him instead. This is essentially the entire plot of the film: Lisa talks to Mark and her mother about how she wants to leave Johnny, they tell her that Johnny is a great guy and great provider, her and Mark get it on some more.

But despite the numerous slap-and-tickle bouts, which seem even longer than they are because they’re so dull, this is not a movie with prurience on its mind. This is a movie that wants to be a Tennessee Williams play when it grows up, except someone dropped it on its head when it was young and it hasn’t been right ever since.

The Room is loaded with atrocious dialogue, worse line readings, arbitrary plotting (one major character announces early on that she has just learned that she has breast cancer, only to forget about it for the rest of the film), cheap sets, and godawful staging (the sex scene on a circular staircase is a highlight). You could laugh yourself sick just concentrating on the set decorations for the main set, Johnny’s living room: It’s painted bright red, has a column against the wall, a TV set behind the sofa, and unexplained frames photographs of spoons scattered about. (Plastic spoons are to LA screenings of The Room what toilet paper and toast are to Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

But what really lifts The Room into the stratosphere is the performance of its writer-director-star in the role of Johnny. Tommy Wiseau looks like an older version of Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver, by way of Gene Simmons. He has long hair that appears to be dyed black, wears a suit that’s about two sizes too big with a loosened tie (he’s supposed to be some kind of banker), and speaks in an accent that recalls Arnold Schwarzenegger the day he got off the boat from Austria.

What makes this so bizarre is that Johnny is supposed to be an average, everyday guy. No one seems to know where Wiseau came from (he’s secretive about his past), but his bizarre accent would indicate some country that doesn’t exist anymore. His line readings (many of which have clearly been overdubbed) are so bad that it sounds like he has no idea what the dialogue means. I wouldn’t blame him—I don’t know what most of the dialogue meant, either—except that he wrote this stuff. And when he gets his teeth into a line, like the Brando-meets-James Dean moment when he screams, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”, watch out! The movie is unintentionally funny enough without him, but when he’s onscreen (which is most of the film), it enters another dimension entirely.

Having checked out Wiseau’s MySpace page, I’m tempted to think that he and his movie are a huge put-on, done in the spirit of Andy Kaufman and (apparently) Joaquin Phoenix’s recent antics. But as a longtime fan of bad movies, I think he’s the real thing. Cult movies have got a bad name in the past 20 years as too many Troma-inspired no-talents with cameras have battered us with inept junk they pass off as “cult.” A movie like The Room comes along once in a generation.

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