Sunday, March 28, 2010

I went to a midnight showing of The Room and all I got was this plastic spoon

Now playing on the iPod - "Come Dancing" - The Kinks

Ah, for the days of youth and vigor, when I was able to stay up for a midnight movie every weekend. Those days are gone, but I prepped with some early bedtimes through the week and some judicious use of caffeine to stay up for a midnight showing of The Room.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film: The Room is a 2003 melodrama by self-styled auteur Tommy Wiseau (the film's Wikipedia entry gives you the lowdown). Plot-wise it's very basic - a love triangle between too-good-for-this world Johnny (played by Wiseau), his hateful fiancee Lisa, and Johnny's best friend Mark ends badly. Adding to the fun (but not to the plot) are Denny, a weird man-child that Johnny is putting through college; Lisa's materialistic mother; and horny couple Mike and Michelle (in their first scene they barge into Johnny's house and have goofy sex on his couch, before the audience even knows their names).

This summary doesn't begin to demonstrate the many problems of the film, or why the unintentional hilarity they create has made this film a cult sensation (sort of a Rocky Horror for the new millennium). Just a partial list would include:

  • The peculiar set decoration that includes pictures of spoons (hence the title of this post: audience members at midnight showings will bring boxes of plastic spoons and fling them whenever the spoon pictures appear).

  • The agonizing love scenes - four of them all told. The two scenes with Lisa and Mark go on longer but the ones with Lisa and Johnny are more painful for the viewers. Let's just say that Wiseau is not the most photogenic actor out there and leave it at that (take a gander at that movie poster on the Wikipedia page). The scenes are only made worse by Lisa's kissing style (she always looks like she's trying to devour her costar's face) and the awful songs playing over the action.

  • The numerous establishing shots. The movie is set in San Francisco and Wiseau seems worried that viewers will forget this. There are at least a dozen, probably more, establishing shots of the Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz, cable cars, etc. Worse still, some of them actually happen several times within a single scene. And the many rooftop scenes were shot against a green screen, and footage of San Francisco was then put behind the action (in a blurred, clumsy fashion, so that the Transamerica Tower keeps changing location).

  • Technical ineptitude. For reasons that are still unclear, Wiseau shot the movie on both standard film and digital video, building a special camera setup for this very purpose. Moreover, there are some very odd framing choices throughout, and many scenes in which actors are in and out of focus (the lack of focus is actually welcomed during the aforementioned sex scenes).

But the main reason for The Room's awfulness and its fun is the screenplay and dialogue. Written by Wiseau, the screenplay often seems to be coming from the perspective of an alien, or perhaps someone with a really bad case of Asperger's. There are people, and interactions, but none of it feels remotely like the way real people act or behave. The dialogue has a weird stilted quality to it, as if it had been translated from another language.

Not helping is the incredibly awkward screenplay, which throws random incidents and bits of dialogue into the mix. Denny has a problem with drugs, it seems. Is he doing, selling, or what? No one knows. There's a one-scene encounter with a dealer, and nothing comes of it. Likewise, Lisa's mother casually mentions during one of their brief-yet-interminable mother-daughter chats that she has breast cancer - this topic never comes up again. Characters show up and aren't introduced for several scenes. One character disappears entirely from the movie in its last third, and another gets several lengthy speeches during the climactic scene but the audience never learns his name (leading midnight audience members to scream, "Who ARE you??!!"). Characters barge into Johnny's house without ever knocking, deliver their dialogue, and inevitably say, "I gotta go" and leave.

Moreover, the main characters behave so unrealistically it's like watching a soap opera from another planet. Tommy Wiseau's Johnny is such a great guy that this film could have been called Mary Sue: The Movie. Every scene with Johnny tells us how fabulous he is. He's getting a promotion soon! He gives Lisa everything she wants, like roses and ostensibly sexy red dresses! He's putting Denny through college! He tosses around the football with his buddies! He's the favorite customer of the lady at the flower shop! Who could ever betray such an amazing person?

Lisa could. As Johnny's (allegedly) irresistible "future wife" (does Wiseau not know the word "fiancee"?) she's possibly one of the most loathsome women I've seen on screen. She admits from the outset that she's no longer in love with Johnny but stays with him because he provides for her. When her affair with Mark fails to give her life the excitement it needs, she spreads lies that Johnny is getting drunk and hitting her, and that they're expecting a baby. Is it any wonder that Johnny reacts the way he does when the truth about Lisa emerges? Actually, it is. Lisa is so transparently shrewish and shallow that it works against Wiseau's portrayal of Johnny as Noble Boyfriend So Grievously Wronged - he comes off as an idiot for even putting up with this harpy, let alone being driven to suicide by her.

The Room is a mess, and a failure on so many levels. But it's got a batshit insane sincerity to it that both ups the hilarity and keeps the movie from being unendurable. His latter-day face-saving "Oh, I meant this to be a dark comedy" claims aside, there's no doubt that Wiseau meant The Room (which began life as a play and a novel - oh, what I'd give to read the novel) to be his cri de couer. He's like Ed Wood with an affinity for melodrama instead of horror movies, and it's this fusion of sincerity and ineptitude that draws audiences in and lets them laugh til they cry and fling spoons at the screen. That midnight show was the best time I've had in a cinema since Grindhouse, and I can't wait to catch The Room at a midnight show again.

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