‘The Room’ as a Religious Experience

Promotional photo for "The Room"(2003), with Juliette Danielle, Tommy Wiseau (center) and Greg Sister (right). Courtesy of Wiseau Films.

By Érico Lotufo
BU News Service

I’d like to think that enjoying something for its irony became fashionable in the Internet age, but one could argue it always has been. The internet didn’t exist when Ed Wood became a VHS staple for movie fans of the “so bad it’s good” genre. And in the 19th century, San Francisco locals were okay with treating Joshua Norton as royalty after he declared himself Emperor of the United States. It was so amusing that they went along with it.

Ironic enjoyment is part of human behavior. What becomes fashionable is often what we ironically enjoy. First, it was Emperor Norton. Then it was Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Now, it can only be Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 independent movie “The Room.”

It has been 14 years since the film was released and audiences still haven’t gotten over it. And I don’t blame them, because one cannot create sustainable ironic enjoyment in a lab. It needs to have a certain amount of genuine love by the creator, who made it with the sincere belief that such a work of art will not only be great, but influential and genre-defining. He or she must be insane enough to believe that they are the true emperor of the United States. One cannot make ironic pleasure out of actual irony, as paradoxical as that sounds.

That explains why, in October of 2017, I found myself standing in a block-turning line, past midnight and in the cold, waiting to watch “The Room” on the big screen at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. I had bought my ticket in advance and was glad I did, since the ticket stand had already posted a sign warning “The Room” had sold out earlier that day.

Now I was surrounded by other white millennials who can best be described as this decade’s “irony savants.” They waited outside, talking of unironic important stuff, such as the morality of the “Count of Monte Cristo” and how “In Cold Blood” is a must-read.

Of course, I had seen “The Room” before. It’s hard to avoid on the film-side of the internet. On YouTube, dissecting the movie’s awkward dialogue, embarrassing sex scenes and Wiseau’s confounding accent has become a genre unto itself. CinemaSins’ takedown of the film has almost 8 million views. Nostalgia Critic’s has 1.8 million.

In the theatre, conversations about Dumas and Capote were replaced by more juvenile actions, like yelling “Water!” whenever it appeared on screen or throwing plastic spoons at the screen when an inexplicable portrait of a spoon appears in the background. Before the start of the movie, an announcer had simply told everyone to have fun and “don’t be dicks.”

They certainly had fun. I felt like I was in a church service for the first time, never knowing when exactly to say amen. At one point, you think you’ve got the hang of it, but it always comes out seconds after the rest of the congregation. I had thrown several spoons at the screen before understanding why people were doing it. The guy next to me had a seemingly endless supply and he threw them by the dozen.

There were no moments of silence with a few exceptions: infamous scenes that involved doggies and Wiseau feeling torn apart were given full attention and it seemed like the entire audience was holding their breath. It was as if missing these scenes would make the $13.50 ticket not worth it.

If this was church, Wiseau was the priest. Not a lowly one either, a televangelist that could sell you a bottle of water that allegedly cured leprosy even though you’ve never known anyone with leprosy, or even that people still got leprosy. When his character entered the screen, there were applauses. When his cheating wife came in, there were boos. When she wooed his best friend, shouts of “Don’t do it!” erupted from the audience. When his name appeared in the credits five or so times (for acting in, directing, writing and producing the film) he got roaring applause for each one.

That’s when I started to believe my previous assessment of the film’s success was wrong or at least misguided. The fan participation, the applauses and the laughter didn’t seem ironic anymore. They seemed sincere. This wasn’t just a funny, throwaway bad flick. It was honestly enjoyed by everyone. I kept imagining that people would lose their minds if Wiseau appeared in person to say “Oh hi there,” as if he were George Clooney, Tom Brady or Barack Obama. It would be for the same reason, too: true worship.

It is said Wiseau sincerely thought “The Room” was a masterpiece to be remembered with the likes of “Citizen Kane.” At first, a cynical person may call that kind of naïveté adorable, but his sincerity makes it worthy of respect.

Of course, “The Room” didn’t become “Citizen Kane,” but it did become worthy of its non-ironic admiration. Tommy Wiseau is Emperor Norton in an alternate timeline where, while not becoming actual royalty, he runs for congress and gets elected. “The Room” has beaten irony.

That’s why James Franco is playing him in an upcoming biopic with Oscar buzz around it. It’s why the Coolidge Corner Theatre will screen “The Room” again in November and probably a dozen more times in the coming months.

In the end, people really like it and, truthfully, what’s not to like?

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