Undeniably one of the greatest bad movies to ever grace the silver screen, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has become such a vibrant cult hit that, in spite of its legendary awfulness, it actually does manage to grace silver screens all over the world a full decade after its release. At sold-out midnight showings, costumed fans laugh and cheer at the utter incomprehensibility of the film, without ever truly stopping to ask what it all means.
Now, let me clear the air here: this movie is abysmal. Characters enter and exit the script with neither introduction nor purpose; motivations don’t exist, the music is brain-melting, the dialogue is one single droning non sequitur and reads like its writer spoke English as a fifth language (according to co-star Greg Sestero, this might not be a stretch). You barely need to start the opening credits before seeing that there is no way in hell this movie was constructed with anything resembling a rational thought.
But what if it was?
What if we analyzed this movie the way we analyze books in a literature class? Assume everything is intentional, meticulously built by a brilliant author; look for meaning in every phrase and comma because it simply can’t not be there.
What you would have on your hands is an existentialist masterpiece.
At this point, I’m going to assume you’ve seen The Room or at least know the basics. While I highly suggest you watch this movie, the internet offers many summaries, and the plot pretty much boils down to “Lisa is a bitch” anyway.
After a good deal of thought and three too many viewings, I find it almost intuitive that The Room could claim to be an essay on the confusion and uncertainty plaguing human existence. Taking heavy (imaginary) evidence from absurdist writers like Albert Camus, author of The Stranger, Tommy Wiseau (writer, director, producer, and star of The Room) paints a chilling picture of an everyday man’s inability to find connection with those he tries to love.
To understand The Room, you first need to realize that the movie looks and sounds and flows like Johnny’s mind (Johnny being the long-haired protagonist). What you see is a window through another person’s mind: a warped, distorted, alien vision of a place you thought was familiar. According to absurdist thinking, each individual lives on his own cosmic island, unable to truly understand or sympathize with the alien worldviews of others. Johnny sees the world as he understands it. The plot fundamentally revolves around him because he sees himself as the protagonist of his own life, and the only characters that even make appearances in the film are those that Johnny is keenly aware of, those that he sees as fitting into his own bubble of human existence. Likewise, the random subplots that pop up unexplained and are never heard from again—the drug dealer, Lisa’s mother’s terminal breast cancer, Mark’s out-of-place drug use—are other people’s lives, intersecting with his but never quite overlapping. He doesn’t know everything that happens around him, and he feels safe not knowing everything. And if he was fully aware of these plotlines, why would he feel to explain them if this is just a series of snapshots from Johnny’s consciousness? We, the viewers, are intruders in his brain; who are we to demand he explain his own knowledge and memories to himself? What good would that do?
In fact, the movie is filled with odd details that identify this world as Johnny’s own. The unexplained pictures of spoons decorating his apartment, for example, mean nothing to you or me, but they may mean the world to Johnny; when was the last time you were in the home of a friend or relative and saw odd objects on shelves, objects without value or purpose for you yet objects you knew had a story behind them? Likewise, bits like the awkward, overlong, repetitious sex scenes perfectly capture his own romantic feelings toward his fiancée, with whom he has been seeing for five seven years. The scenes are long and awkward and purposeless because that is how they feel to him: clumsy, unappealing, a part of a routine. They repeat themselves because he feels like his love life is on a hideous repeat, but the music in the background suggests passion and love and emotion because that is what society tells Johnny he should feel toward intimacy—and the music is cheesy and completely unmoving, because background music is all it is, because it’s the same watered down message he’s been hearing his entire life.
Now think of the dialogue. No one speaks in a way that truly makes sense, and how can they? People have their own unique personalities and styles, and dialogue between multiple people is never truly consistent. But not understanding his own fiancée (“future wife”) in conversation never seems to bother Johnny, and why should it? He has never existed in any other form, and he’s used to humans not being able to entirely communicate. The conversations in the film are not so much actual conversations taking place in the moment but rather conversations as he remembers them: stripped down, strange, meandering, encoded into his own internal language for storage.
Furthermore, Johnny, like everyone else, believes he always acts rationally and with the interests of others in mind, which is why, in the film (his own mind), Johnny always does the right thing, always helps others, always seems to be fighting the good fight when others are turning against him. Meanwhile, his friends speak to him like he’s a saint and then proceed to stab him in the back, in a bold cinematic demonstration of the discrepancy he feels between his perceived friendship and the actions of his “friends.” His friends change dramatically in character from one scene to the next, the way people are inconsistent from day to day in a way that confuses and frustrates us. And when his friends do things he finds inconsiderate or flawed, they always act without motivation, simply seeking to cause chaos and destruction; how can you sympathize with someone who doesn’t think like you, who makes choices that you would never make, who betrays you? As in real life, a small act, seemingly innocent to the perpetrator, is blown out of proportion into betrayal and melodrama even as you read further and further into it.
Meanwhile, Johnny himself feels supremely isolated from his friends, something his accent, hair and just generally bizarre appearance demonstrate perfectly. Johnny doesn’t sound like other people; I have said before that his accent is one that should not exist on Earth, and that’s exactly what he must think too. He never truly feels like he exists on the same plane as those around him. He is a stranger in a world of strangers. Everyone else seems to speak in a different language, all homogenous except for him, like they’re all in on some secret—his accent demonstrates his self-perception as a kind of freak or outsider. And they do conspire against him, at least in his mind. But no one else seems to notice his accent or appearance; in the infamous flower shop scene, the flower shop owner greets him by saying, “Oh, hi, Johnny, I didn’t know it was you,” despite his unmistakable appearance and style of speaking. Scenes like this demonstrate the crippling self-consciousness of each of us: Johnny feels like an outsider, like everyone must notice his oddness when in reality he’s just like everyone else. Perhaps if the movie was about Lisa, or Mark, they would be the ones with the long hair and the accent, and not Johnny.
Finally, Johnny may be the protagonist of his own life, but he doesn’t feel like he’s in control. The events of The Room happen to or around Johnny, rather than occurring due to his own choices. Much like the protagonists in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, both side characters in Hamlet, never become aware of the dramatic events that define their lives and ultimately determine their deaths, Johnny feels like a side character in someone else’s Hamlet, living under the influence of events that he only brushes the surface of. The lives that run tangent to his ultimately lead him to commit suicide, without Johnny ever understanding why.
Which begs the question, did he ever really intersect with those plots, or did he just invent the whole thing? We all know that Johnny kills himself because his fiancée, Lisa, is having an affair with his best friend, Mark. But does she? There are several scenes in which Lisa and Mark both discuss and act on their feelings toward one another, but Johnny is never actually present in any of these scenes, which allows for the possibility that these are interactions he imagines as a result of his growing paranoia. He never sees Lisa and Mark together; he infers it from a few lines of dialogue at a party that he believes confirm suspicions he’s evidently been building throughout the film. Yes, Mark and Lisa admit to his fears, including on a sexually charged voicemail from Mark to Lisa, but these lines could easily be the way he hears and interprets much less threatening or explicit lines of actual dialogue. The Room brilliantly and eerily portrays the self-destructive properties of the human mind, the brain’s capacity for dangerous assumption and misinterpretation, the way that a single rogue thought can catalyze a vicious spiral in a confusing and uncertain world.
But of course it doesn’t, not really. As fun and fanciful it may be to hope that Tommy Wiseau is secretly a literary genius, we all know that The Room is a poorly made piece of shit that happens to be wildly entertaining. You can spend all day interpreting meaning from a movie that you know to be mind-bogglingly bad; imagine how many English classes you could spend deriving depth from an author you’ve been told is a genius.