A fair number of Utahns have stayed up late the past few weekends to watch a really, really awful movie.
Since Thanksgiving weekend, the Tower Theatre has offered late-night screenings of “The Room,” the infamous 2003 melodrama that was self-financed by its preening star, Tommy Wiseau. The Tower, at 876 E. 900 South, is doing it again this weekend, with screenings Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m. and Sunday at noon (for those who don’t have any last-minute Christmas Eve chores).
The screenings have been fairly well attended, I’m told by a spokesperson for the Salt Lake Film Society, the nonprofit that runs the Tower and Broadway Centre Cinemas. One screening in early December nearly sold out the 340-seat theater, the weekend before the Broadway opened “The Disaster Artist,” the movie directed by James Franco that tells the story of how “The Room” got made. (I went to “The Room” the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and there were about 40 people there.)
As shown in Franco’s movie, and his astonishing performance as Wiseau, the story behind “The Room” is far more interesting than the movie itself. Wiseau, a self-generated parody of a movie star with an indefinable accent from somewhere in eastern Europe, befriends struggling actor Greg Sestero (played by James’ brother, Dave Franco), and together they try to make it in Hollywood. When Tommy fails utterly in his quest, he writes the script for “The Room,” in which he and Greg will star. Tommy decides he’ll direct the movie, hiring a professional crew using money from sources no one can fathom.
“The Room” tells the story of Johnny, played by Wiseau, who is depicted as the all-American guy. (There are many shots of him throwing around the ol’ football, though Wiseau himself seems incapable of handling the pigskin.) He’s good to his best friend, Mark (played by Sestero), and mentor to a teen, Denny (Philip Haldiman, played in “The Disaster Artist” by Josh Hutcherson). But Johnny is done in by his shrew of a girlfriend, Lisa, played by Juliette Danielle (who’s portrayed in Franco’s version by Ari Graynor). Lisa is tired of Johnny and wants to make out with Mark instead.
Here is where “The Room” is different from movies that are merely bad: With a bad movie, a viewer can usually see what the filmmakers were aiming to do, but Wiseau’s motivations are a puzzle. Why is Lisa so manipulative? Why is Johnny so close to Denny that they sometimes engage in tickle fights? Why does Mark put up with Lisa’s duplicity?
A filmmaker with even basic competence or understanding of human nature would have sorted out some of these questions. (One of the most interesting scenes in “The Disaster Artist” is when the cast, over a lunch break, discuss the unanswerable question: What is “The Room” about?) Wiseau seems not to notice the gaping holes in plot structure or the completely alien way his characters talk and act.
Much of what Wiseau does in “The Room” — the impromptu football games, the dramatic throwing-down of a water bottle, the imitation of James Dean’s “You’re tearing me apart!” emoting — has become fodder for the so-bad-it’s-entertaining cult status the movie has achieved. After seeing “The Room,” particularly its nihilistic ending, I can’t laugh at it.
I’ve seen campy movies that were good in spite of themselves, and this isn’t one of them. “The Room” is just bad. Pathetically bad, the product of a filmmaker with no talent and no comprehension of why or how he failed.
Also, as Franco bravely portrays in “The Disaster Artist,” Wiseau was a thoroughly awful human being during the making of “The Room.” He manipulates his supposed best friend, Greg, and sabotages his one shot at a real acting role. He browbeats his crew and cast members, to the point of letting them roast in a too-hot studio when he is hours late to the shoot. And he is verbally abusive to his leading lady, Danielle, before their big (and quite awful) sex scene.
It’s this last one that’s particularly egregious. In the current climate of #MeToo, misogynistic behavior like Wiseau’s is ending careers.
And the popularity of “The Room” comes when independent filmmakers with actual talent struggle to get an audience for their movies. For those filmmakers, watching Wiseau achieve this kind of fame is akin to a writer working on something of quality and seeing some click-bait nonsense get all the attention.
Wiseau has parlayed “The Room” into a cult hit and tours the country to host screenings of it. He’s famous all over again, thanks to Franco’s movie. And this week, the event-cinema company Fathom Events announced a one-night screening of “The Room” on 500 screens Jan. 10.
Wiseau, a preening no-talent, is getting everything he wanted: a nationwide release neither he nor his awful movie ever deserved. It’s the American dream, come true on the big screen.