Is ‘The Room’ the worst movie of all time, or just the 21st century?

With this poster, how could the movie have flopped in theatres?

My thoughts about bad movies were prompted by the most exhilarating, exasperating and jaw-dropping movie experience I’ve had in who knows how long — The Room. I’m usually not a fan of watching movies renowned for their awfulness; I tend to barely crack a smile, and afterward rue the wasted time, time I could have spent seeing something good (or reading a book). But The Room was different; The Room was like a jolt of electricity.

If you think you’ve seen it all, if you think you’re jaded, you haven’t seen The Room. Until you’ve endured The Room, you don’t know just how astonishingly bad a movie can be, down to the merest detail. This is a work that brings out the film critic in everyone who sees it, because there’s no other movie where every single aesthetic decision made during the film’s production, every choice, seems inexplicably misguided, if not actively insane.

I would feel mean listing the film’s problems, but more important, I wouldn’t know where to begin, or end. Days  after I saw it, I couldn’t stop marveling at just how many continuity errors were inspired by a single prop, a glass of red wine, in one scene. This is why I call the movie exhilarating — I don’t know any other film that awakens such awareness of how much craft goes into the making of a competent, watchable film. Not to mention common sense, a trait that seems to have been mysteriously absent from the making of The Room, from inception right through to the most recent DVD release.

The exhilaration also stems from the way the movie creates a sensation of entering a Bizarro parallel universe; filmmakers with access to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of special effects can’t match the sense of novelty. This is that rare film that deserves the accolade, “Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!”

not just a triple-threat auteur but a marketing genius as wellThe movie is ostensibly a character-driven romantic drama about a group of young professionals in San Francisco. But recounting the plot in detail is probably unnecessary (though perhaps a mind-bending challenge, given how baffling some of the characters’ interactions are); the movie already has a burgeoning cult following dedicated to celebrating every one of its quirks and gaffes.

From a certain angle, The Room’s creator, Tommy Wiseau (who, the credits tell us, served as star, writer, director, producer and executive producer), has achieved what every filmmaker dreams about. Nine years after its very short-lived theatrical release, the film is talked about, blogged about, quoted from and re-enacted, and it sells out monthly midnight screenings in Los Angeles and elsewhere. It’s a true grassroots phenomenon; who can remember what the blockbusters of 2003 were? (Actually, I can. The two Matrix sequels came out that year, and The Room is a lot more fun than either of them.)

Of course, the movie is now venerated precisely because it’s so terrible. Originally billed as an indie drama, the 2009 DVD rerelease bills the movie as a “quirky black comedy,” “uninhibited by cinematic convention.” Going along with the joke, Wiseau maintains that everything in the film is intentional, which I don’t believe for a second. If there was even a hint of wink-wink going on in the movie, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, or as funny. Per Susan Sontag, The Room is the perfect illustration of how true camp artifacts can only be found, not made.

But the way Wiseau has put on his best craggy poker face and shrewdly made the most of what must have appeared to be a $6 million debacle back in 2003 demonstrates a bare-knuckle truth of the entertainment industry: any foothold you can attain in the movie business is, well, a foothold, not to be passed up. I have no idea if Wiseau has recouped his reported $6 million investment by now, but the monthly sold-out screenings and the DVD rerelease must generate at least a trickle of income.

More important, Wiseau is now a “name,” sort of. In a 2009 interview with the L.A. Times, he said he has a vampire movie in development; just the notion of a Tommy Wiseau vampire flick is enough to make me smile. After seeing The Room, who wouldn’t be curious about such a thing? (He’s already got the accent to play Dracula.)

everybody betray me!

Tommy Wiseau in the Tommy Wiseau film THE ROOM. © Copyright Wiseau Films.

Of course, the important qualifier to remember when discussing The Room is that context is everything. When I was assigned the disc for my freelance Movie Analyst gig, my cineaste’s spider-sense told me that the film was likely to be far less amusing viewed at home by myself, so I went the opposite route and made it a festive occasion. I watched it on a 60” plasma screen with four other people, including two film students. The screening went as well as I could’ve hoped — the movie inspired nonstop laughter, as well as an occasional call-and-response between the actors and us audience members.

I’m sure watching it alone would have been very different. I imagine the movie would have inspired the same disbelieving fascination, as well as guffaws, but I bet both would have faded after the 45-minute mark, and the second half would have been a long crawl indeed. I can well understand the imdb.com member who posted, in my favorite line of film criticism ever: “This movie is like getting stabbed in the head.”

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