Three City Paper writers think way too hard about 'The Room'

City Paper

We’re all grown-ups here pretty much, which means we can pick and choose what entertains us when we’re high, right? We don’t need proper “stoner” movies explicitly designed to watch while we’re lit and they certainly don’t have to be about weed for us to watch them while smoking weed. They also don’t have to be comedies. Yeah, no shit, things are funnier when you’ve smoked, but they’re also more profound and beautiful and existentially terrifying and sadder and confusing and lots of other things. So, if you’re looking for proper stoner movies, well, go on and Google some goofy-ass listicle and have your entry-level weed-head fun (though we’ll give one stoned and alone shout out to the severely underrated stoner slapstick comedy from 2007, “Smiley Face,” directed by Gregg Araki and starring Anna Faris). Instead, we’d like to test the definition of a stoner movie a little bit.

2003’s “The Room,” a cult movie best known for being mostly incomprehensible and starring one of the strangest and creepiest leading men in all of movies, is a great weed movie because it gives you a lot to think about, maybe too much to think about, really. City Paper arts writer Rebekah Kirkman and Eats & Drinks Editor Anna Walsh got together with Screens Editor Brandon Soderberg to watch “The Room” and engaged in the following exchange. Topics include Edward Hopper, Super Smash Bros., David Lynch, misogyny, “Full House,” “Too Many Cooks,” camp, patriarchy, Kate Chopin, Douglas Sirk, heteronormativity, and cheesecake. 

Brandon Soderberg: Since this is your second viewing of “The Room” in two weeks, Anna, we’re going to defer to you to try and summarize it.

Anna Walsh: “The Room” is a hard movie to summarize, but here’s the best approximation I can give: It’s about a hardworking dude named Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) who has a solid job at a bank and a supposedly loving, much-younger fiancee, Lisa (Juliette Danielle), and some solid friends, including his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero) and a younger neighbor, Denny (Philip Haldiman), to whom Johnny is a father figure. But very quickly Johnny’s life starts to fall apart. Lisa seduces Mark! Denny gets into drugs! Johnny doesn’t get the promotion he deserves! The plot itself doesn’t necessarily make for a bad movie, but “The Room” is bizarre and disjointed. It’s co-produced, directed, and co-written by, and starring Wiseau, which means it’s basically a window into his view of the world—and it’s a pretty bizarre view. The movie’s stilted dialogue, superficial characterizations of human relationships, and melodramatic plot lines that are immediately abandoned after one scene make it seem like an alien read a few books about screenwriting and humans and said, “Yup, I’ve got this all figured out, time to make a movie.” And through that lens, I find “The Room” utterly fascinating.

Rebekah Kirkman: The whole aesthetic of “The Room” is comically surreal (and also kind of Hopper-esque in places; there’s often sharp, daytime window light in the interior scenes) and it adds to the overall half-baked quality of the plot, dialogue, acting, and transitions between scenes. There are so many strange choices in design alone that Wiseau maybe didn’t think were too important, but they still stick out because everything here feels absurd and noteworthy. In one scene, they serve red wine in champagne flutes. When Johnny comes in from work he lounges lethargically, like an old cat, on the very early-’00s-looking, slipcovered couches. On a wall in the living room, too, you’ll notice small framed stock photos of a bouquet of flowers and a spoon (really). In the rooftop scenes which were done with a green screen, it feels like a Super Smash Bros. world, with the time- and place-less foggy cityscape backdrop.

BS: I’ve said “The Room” is like a David Lynch movie by accident. There are so many elements of the movie that add up to the whole thing feeling just off: The acting is poor but it’s consistently poor; Tommy Wiseau, the star is the only person in the movie that you can’t imagine realistically coexisting with the others (he also reminds me of Robert Blake in “Lost Highway”) and the camerawork is really utilitarian, which makes it seem even more bizarre.

RK: “The Room” almost feels like a campy/parody soap opera; all the pinnings of melodrama are there in the script, the acting, and the sets and scenery. But it lacks the self-awareness, and that makes it way more interesting. It begins with the credits rolling in (using the “Impact” font, if I’m not mistaken) over stock footage of San Francisco that fades in and out too quickly for a movie, but it’s all more or less the same helicopter views of the Golden Gate Bridge. These stock shots are interspersed throughout the movie, and there’s an uncanny, slightly off, “Full House”-ish feeling—the drab, kinda matter-of-fact scenery complements the canned/cliché dialogue really well.

BS: Evil “Full House.” All the exterior shots and establishing shots stretch the movie’s running time too. It’s a 99-minute movie that could easily be more like 80 minutes and make the same dramatic points. It’s a move cribbed from television. You know, all those shots of exteriors are crammed into soap operas and sitcoms to stretch the shows to 22 minutes. So, here you have Wiseau using the pacing of commercial-break-oriented television, but this isn’t a television show so he didn’t need to do that.

RK: It’s like Wiseau has this list of plot points and props and lines he knows he should include, to make it the kind of movie he wants it to be. And all of the awkwardness and nonsensical transitions dismantle the illusion that he has any real grasp on what he’s doing, and make it seem like his efforts of making a romance-drama are totally sincere. It’s not camp.

BS: And part of how this movie became a cult thing is by way of Adult Swim, which makes sense. There’s an episode of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” with Tommy Wiseau in it and Adult Swim at some point just played “The Room,” and so many of the things the network’s been into lately, such as, say, “Too Many Cooks” or “Unedited Footage of a Bear,” locate dread and absurdity in the sitcom format. You know, the bucolic surrealism of basic white middle American life. So “The Room” feels like a lot of really cool, weird, cutting-edge comedy right now. You know, “normcore” for example. Tommy Wiseau’s cargo pants in one scene are very normcore.

AW: Something that I kept thinking about while we were watching this together is how it can be read as a case for how the patriarchy/sexism hurts everyone. Lisa tells her mom from the start that she’s bored of Johnny and doesn’t love him anymore, but her mother (who’s maybe the most convincing and entertaining character in this whole mess) insists that she should stay with Johnny because he has a good job and provides for Lisa. It’s hinted that Lisa has been incapable of finding a job in her field (something to do with computers—like many things in this movie, it’s half-mentioned and then immediately forgotten), so she’s forced out of economic necessity to function as Johnny’s stay-at-home housewife. Given how awkward and dull Johnny is, it’s no surprise that she would feel unfulfilled and would turn to Mark, who’s far more conventionally attractive and is apparently doing well at his job, for some excitement. Lisa starts telling her mother and friends that Johnny hit her, and although the audience knows that’s a lie, it’s alarming to see how dismissive her friends and family are to her claims of Johnny’s abuse.

BS: Lisa’s actually pretty awesome here. She lies about being pregnant just to mess with people and she has a few really like badass lines here (“I’m going to do what I want to do, and that’s it”). We focus so much on Lisa’s dissatisfaction that it unintentionally validates her. It’s like Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or a Douglas Sirk movie. And the more you think about “The Room” (and also the higher I got while watching it), it does seem like all the interactions between the men are like masculine interactions reduced to absurdity: throwing a football around, talking about how confusing and evil women are, etc.

AW: Johnny tells Denny that having a steady job and marrying a lady is “what you’re supposed to do,” and he can’t seem to conceive of any world of possibilities beyond those expectations. When the movie reaches its dramatic conclusion, you could argue that it was the excessive demands of our societal conceptions of masculinity that led to Johnny’s undoing. “The Room” could be a subversive commentary on heteronormativity and societal responses to intimate partner violence, were it not for the fact that Wiseau obviously just wants it to be a sincere commentary on how horribly grasping and manipulative women are—as Mark tells Johnny, “Sometimes they’re just too smart, sometimes they’re just flat-out stupid, and other times they’re just evil.”

BS: Right, back to this “movie made by an alien” thing. Another way to describe the movie is like, imagine if there were some misogynist planet from another galaxy or something and they observed humans’ behavior for a little while and then decided to make a anti-women propaganda film to plant in video stores or something.

AW: Exactly, it’s so blatantly misogynistic that it feels unreal. And Johnny, for his part, has no idea how to relate to his fiancee or talk to her. When he finds out that Lisa has been cheating on him with Mark, Johnny doesn’t confront her about it and seems determined to cling even more to their relationship, even as he talks incessantly about how awful women are. And Johnny and Lisa become so horrible to each other, with Lisa gas-lighting Johnny and Johnny yelling at her and calling her a “bitch,” that it almost feels like an after-school special on emotionally abusive relationships.

BS: There’s also the like, you know, “paratext” of “The Room” which is that it’s this cult-classic, campy movie to laugh at, which is wise to ignore because movie ironists aren’t interested in the misogyny (or they just think it’s funny) and they also ignore how dark the movie gets by the end. Especially when we were watching it together, I was much more interested in its effect on me. Again, it helped that I was really high, but the movie plays with time. Scenes often end and then start up again and when characters are arguing, it feels like two takes of the same scene just right next to one another. There’s that scene in the coffee shop where we watch two people in a row order before we get to Johnny and Mark talking. Also both of those people order cheesecake? We just watched two characters who have nothing to do with the movie order cheesecake back to back.

RK: Tommy Wiseau exemplifies cognitive dissonance; the logic he builds doesn’t follow through for the viewer. He thought about it once. We need furniture! We need a scene! Where are we? This will work! This also comes through the way certain scenes are shot—in one sex scene near the end, we are complete voyeurs, we are the camera operator, walking around the bed, poking our camera through the veil, looking down at Mark and Lisa while they bone. It’s an example of how much of the shots are purely functional, no frills, no technique or special cutting. None of this makes it unwatchable, though. And it’s not even like watching a train wreck, not quite a hate watch. Something in the strung-together, surreal aesthetic of “The Room” mirrors the way elements of the plot and script are disjointed, and how details are mentioned and then left there. Who the hell is Denny? Why does he get into drugs? What drugs? It’s funny to think of it as a portrait of a (more) misogynistic, alternate reality. That’s kind of the world that Wiseau builds, whether he knows it or not.

BS: I want to walk back my “Lynchian by accident” assessment, because fuck the idea that any kind of art is “by accident” or that we should assume David Lynch has a better idea of what he’s doing than Tommy Wiseau (I’d also much rather watch “The Room” than the majority of Lynch movies). I’m not sure “The Room” is a bad movie. It’s really compelling and interesting and creates an atmosphere. Those aren’t things that are easy to do. I’m less interested in whether it does the things plenty of other movies do “well” than I am in the things it does that no other movie does. “The Room” makes me feel some type of way. You turn it on and you’re in Wiseau’s weird world and it keeps you watching and you want to watch it again. I’ll take that over most other things playing at The Charles this week, you know? 

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