We live in an era where "literally" everything is "the worst." But what if your life's work is literally the worst?
This is the plight of Tommy Wiseau, whose 2003 film "The Room" is hailed as the "Citizen Kane" of bad movies, and who is now the subject of James Franco's new movie "The Disaster Artist."
A 2009 story in The Washington Post called "The Room" a "train wreck of almost incomprehensible proportions: Whole scenes are out of focus. . . . Characters appear without introduction, while others vanish without explanation."
And yet I've seen the film well over a hundred times, and there is no irony in my admiration. I've attended several of the midnight showings in Los Angeles, Honolulu and here in Washington at Landmark E Street Cinema, armed with plastic spoons to throw whenever we see photos of spoons, which (inexplicably) show up in frames on a nightstand. I've interviewed Wiseau, and when he said, "Hai, Gene," in his trademark Eastern European-ish accent that he insists is from New Orleans, I felt transported into his universe. I recently bought the Blu-ray edition, the 19th copy I've bought, because I spent two Christmases buying nothing but the DVD for all my friends.
One night I dragged 25 of them to a midnight showing. Halfway through, one of them yelled, "Thank you, Gene!" I threw a spoon at the screen and smiled. Another converted Roomie.
The more people I know who would understand my seemingly non-sequitur references to the film, the happier I would be. If my friends could understand the joy and humor in it, I would feel seen.
The plot is beside the point, but real quickly, it's about Johnny, a banker, played by Wiseau. He has a "future wife," Lisa — "fiancee" doesn't exist in the film's vocabulary. She cheats on him with his best friend, Mark, played by Greg Sestero, who wrote the book that was adapted into Franco's film. Mark and Lisa rub the affair in Johnny's face until he just can't take it anymore.
Wiseau now plays up his persona as the self-aware film clown, but when "The Room" came out, he marketed it as a drama. He spent millions of his own dollars on the film, much of which went to a billboard that menaced Los Angeles for five years after its disastrous release, adding to its mysterious and grotesque allure.
I first heard of the film in 2008, while aimlessly wandering West Hollywood, when I saw a line form around Laemmle's Sunset 5 Theatre. Curious, I asked attendees what they were lining up for, and all I got was, "We can't describe it for you. Just watch it. Get it online, it's really cheap."
I returned home and ordered myself a copy. I watched it with my then-fiancee (sorry, then-future wife). It's the better way to watch it for the first time — the midnight movie crowd shouts out every line, drowning out the weird intonations of the acting. Watch it with a loved one whom you can hold afterward and grapple with what you just witnessed, as my fiancee and I did.
We watched the DVD special features, which include an interview with Wiseau (who for some reason dubs his voice with his own voice). He's asked, "What do you think you accomplished?"
"I finished what I started," Wiseau says without hesitation. The conviction of that statement struck a chord. And so I watched the train wreck again. His self-
described "passion of Tennessee Williams" suddenly shined through every mistake, every unwatchable sex scene (there are three of them), and in the scene where he heaves a TV out the window.
I was becoming obsessed. Like any Roomie does these days, I unconsciously began quoting the film, beginning every conversation with "Oh, hi." Johnny repeats the phrase dozens of times, including the infamous scene in which he insists that he never hit Lisa, throws a water bottle on the floor in a flourish and it bounces limply, before he casually remarks, "Oh, hi, Mark."
I watched the movie almost every night. In a world that sometimes doesn't make sense, it was nice to immerse myself in one where people play catch football standing three feet away from each other wearing tuxedos for no apparent reason. It felt good, and harmless, to laugh at a different kind of illogical universe.
Wiseau is not the ideal role model. It's apparent the entire movie is him literally acting out his frustrations with his real-world relationships, portraying women with shocking misogyny and disdain. In the "Disaster Artist" book, it's hinted that Wiseau was angry Sestero paid more attention to a girlfriend.
However, "The Room" inspires because it is a potent example of the ego triumphing despite all odds. Wiseau is a 21st-century Don Quixote, bumbling into a place where we're all laughing with — not at — him.
His film predates social media, but it's like a lumbering filmic version of that one Facebook friend who shares random GoFundMe pages and tired old memes, lists their job as "SAG-
AFTRA," has profile pictures of bouquets of flowers with captions like "You know what they say, love is blind" (an actual quote from the film). While most people try to out-snark each other, that sort of self-expression is enviable in its sincerity and simplicity.
Come to think of it, Wiseau's overarching philosophy, which he articulates in those DVD special features, is: "If a lot of people love each other, the world would be a better place to live." That doesn't sound so different from Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg mentions "world" 43 times in his 2017 Facebook manifesto about his "journey to connect the world."
What would Johnny say?
"Oh, hi, Mark."