Monday, February 15, 2010

Film Review: The Room (2003)

This film is tearing me apart, Lisa!

I'm always wary of hype, since having a film praised to high heavens before seeing it often leads me to feel confrontational, as if I'm saying to the film, "Go on, then. Impress me", which is pretty much the least helpful attitude in the world to have when going into a film. What's odd, though, is when a film comes with a reputation as one of the worst films ever made, even if it's known as a film that is 'so bad it's good'. In those instances, such as when I watched much of the back-catalogue of Ed Wood after seeing the excellent Tim Burton film about his life, I approach the film in a more open and accepting way. I want to hug the film to my breast and care for it like an injured bird, saying, "It's okay, it's okay. You're horribly disfigured, but I love you". That pretty much sums up what I felt whilst watching Tommy Wiseau's now legendary The Room.

Set in San Francisco, as you can tell by the endless panning shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the film follows Johnny (Tommy Wiseau), a man who works at a bank, apparently, and lives with his girlfriend, Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Johnny and Lisa seem to have a good life; he has a good job, offers her a sense of financial security, and they have incredibly boring, near static sex. But all is not well in the Johnny household, because Lisa doesn't love him, and she displays her lack of passion by having boring, near static sex with Johnny's best friend - we know he is is his best friend because everyone in the film keeps saying so - Mark (Greg Sestero). There's also a creepy kid who likes to 'watch' Johnny and Lisa (Philip Haldiman), Lisa's meddling mother (Carolyn Minnott), and a plethora of supporting characters who seem curiously invested in Johnny's well-being, and just like to throw the old pig-skin around in tuxedos.

Firstly, let's talk about the sex scenes that litter The Room. I do not think that anyone, anywhere, has ever managed to make sex seem so dull and unappealing as The Room manages to do so. (Except possibly Michael Winterbottom in 9 Songs.) The four sex scenes that occur intermittently throughout the movie involve Lisa and either Johnny or Mark, and consist almost solely of the male character moving their posterior in a vaguely thrust-like motion whilst Lisa lies there, softly moaning, and are sometimes broken up by having the camera view the scene through running water or showing Johnny dropping rose petals on Lisa whilst he laughs. By the way, Tommy Wiseau has the creepiest laugh I have ever heard.

And these scenes drag on for an interminably long length of time. It's like that joke in The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on the rakes; it starts out funny, then becomes boring, then gets funny again. Except the sex scenes in The Room don't start out funny, but become funny due to the lack of focus or point to them; the combination of time + boredom forces the audience to laugh. It's the film equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.

What sets The Room apart from thousands of erotic dramas that use the same plot - other than it being in no way erotic or dramatic - is the sheer, baffling ineptitude with which director-writer-producer-plus actor Tommy Wiseau tries to tell his story. It's a film whose tagline states that it has "all the passion of Tennessee Williams", but none of the talent. This earnest ineptitude permeates every single facet of the production: From the stiff, ungainly camera, which often remains locked in one place for entire scenes so characters have to very obviously walk to their marks to get into frame, to Wiseau's repeated use of establishing shots of San Francisco landmarks to show us the this film is definitely being shot in San Francisco and not in a studio in L.A., from the horrible music cues and cheesy saxophone used in the sex scenes, to the whiplash-inducing shifts in character and dialogue.

Oh, the dialogue! It's hard not to see the film as just a collection of non-sequiturs, really, since no one character ever seems to finish a speech the way they start it. Take this infamous scene in which Johnny, brooding over Lisa flsely accusing him of hitting her whilst drunk (Why? I don't think even Wiseau knows) walks up to the roof to brood in the fresh air/in front of a completely not fake looking backdrop of San Francisco.

Woah! Either Johnny is the most caring, sensitive guy in the world who would easily set aside minor personal problems like being accused of domestic abuse to talk to his best friend (which is what the film wants us to think of him) or he has severe multiple personality disorder. (A much likelier explanation.) Or how about this exchange, possibly my favourite from the film, in which Johnny talks to Mark - his best friend - about his day at work:

Mark: How was work today
Johnny: Oh pretty good. We got a new client… at the bank. We make a lot of money
Mark: What client
Johnny: I can not tell you, it's confidential.
Mark: Oh come on. Why not
Johnny: No I can’t. Anyway, how is your sex life

What makes this exchange work, by which I mean what makes it so terrible, is the completely dead and lifeless delivery that both actors give to their lines. Johnny, having earlier in the film ranted that his bosses fail to appreciate him, is completely unmoved talking about things going well. It's pretty clear that Wiseau is bored with the script (With his own script!) and wants to get to the bit about Mark's sex life, but the shift is so thoroughly bizarre that it makes the rest of the conversation immaterial, especially since it is one of the many, many cyclical conversations in the film in which Johnny and Mark dance clumsily around the fact that Mark is sleeping with Lisa.

There's clearly meant to be some tension to these scenes as Mark has to lie to Johnny - his best friend, in case you missed it - but at no point does Johnny show even the slightest hint of suspecting him. So you end up with pointless scene after pointless scene in which Mark, who couldn't look guiltier if Lisa was fellating him right in front of Johnny, lies whilst Johnny looks on like some benign, mis-shapen Alice Cooper doll, completely oblivious to his own cuckolding.

Wiseau truly dominates the film: his lumbering frame, thick Eastern European ancient and horrible hair make him seem out of place before he even starts to interact with people, and once he starts it's like watching an alien trying to learn about human culture. Wiseau is a truly awful actor who never says any single line of dialogue in a way that sounds real, but he also never says anything in a particularly theatrical way. He instead occupies a hinterland that only he can safely traverse, a land where no sentence ends with the same pitch and intonation that it started with, and no line of dialogue, no matter how banal, can't be made more unintentionally interesting or hilarious.

Wiseau's presence is felt behind the camera, too. For all its value as a new camp classic, The Room is ultimately a very personal film. Clearly someone, somewhere really, really hurt Tommy Wiseau, and this film is his way of sharing that pain with the world. So in the pain-wracked world of The Room - and, by extension, the mind of Tommy Wisseau - there are only three types of women: ditzes, devils and the dead. Meanwhile, men are either open hearted good guys with nothing but love for everyone around them, or easily manipulated fools who are really decent guys at heart - as evidenced by the extreme lengths to which the film goes to absolve Mark of any wrongdoing regarding his affair with Lisa - who only know how to communicate by throwing a football to each other from five feet away or by making CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP noises to rile them. It left me wondering if Wiseau was locked up in a cellar for most of his life and was only let out to make the film, his only reference point for human behaviour being a worn out video tape of softcore pornography and kids practicing football. (Given what little is known about Wiseau's life before making The Room, I think this theory has some serious merit to it.)

In a way, The Room is the closest modern cinema has to an Ed Wood film; much like Glen or Glenda?, Wood's hilariously overwrought and nonsensical attempt to deal with his transvestism, both films have their directors in front of the camera, working through their own fetishes and issues, but doing so in such a wholly misguided and amateurish way that their pain swiftly mutates into our pleasure. I honestly could write so much more about this film. I haven't even covered Lisa's mother's off-hand revelation that she "definitely [has] breast cancer", which is never commented on again, the sub-plot about Denny, the boy who likes to 'watch', getting involved with drugs ("What kind of drugs do you take?!" "It's nothing like that!" "What the HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU!"), or the "Who the fuck are YOU?" appearance in the third act of a man who is so distraught at walking in on Lisa and Mark that he likens his knowledge to sitting on an A-Bomb and waiting for it to go off. Who is this man? Why does he care? What is 'the room' of the title?

Like Citizen Kane or There Will Be Blood, The Room raises many questions. Unlike those two films, which reward subsequent viewings because they are so full of meaning and open to interpretation, The Room rewards subsequent viewings because it is so ineptly put together that it attains an impenetrability bordering on the profound. Each new viewing (I've watched it three times in the last few days.) reveals a new aspect of the narrative that makes no sense, or poor performance, that just can't fail to make you laugh. It is the gift that keeps on giving, and is one of the most enjoyable and enriching experiences you can hope to find watching a terrible, terrible film. It is wonderfully awful.

One more clip? Why not: