Tommy Wiseau is not, technically, famous. He has never been on the cover of Us Weekly, nor has he been the subject of salacious rumors on E! in short, he is the sort of person who can usually walk down the street without being stopped. Yet on a recent Friday night outside New York City's Ziegfeld Theatre, Wiseau was greeted by a mob of fans. They chanted his name, crowded around him for pictures and roped him into a game of catch. After he entered the theater, the people he left behind spoke in awestruck tones. Said one: "This is the best night of my life."
The crowds were there for a midnight showing of Wiseau's unfathomably strange film The Room, to celebrate the anniversary of its inaugural New York City screening (Wiseau was talked out of his first choice for the location, Yankee Stadium) and to launch a national tour of the film.
Unusually for a midnight-movie favorite, The Room contains no flesh-eating ghouls, no polygamous devil cults and no time-traveling transvestites. It is essentially a domestic drama, and the plot is simple: Johnny (Wiseau, who also wrote, directed and executive-produced) is dating Lisa (Juliette Danielle), who is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero). The actual film, though, is like a Koch snowflake of badness, wherein any scene has an infinite number of things wrong with it. Conversations start and stop and change topic at random, and the characters speak a strange brand of English that sounds like it has been filtered through three different Internet language translators. Major plot points are introduced drug deals, underwear theft, breast cancer and never dealt with again. There are languidly unerotic sex scenes, and interminable minutes devoted to the coffee orders of people standing in line in front of the main characters at Starbucks.
But The Room rises above garden-variety awful for a number of reasons, not least of them Wiseau himself. With his hulking physique, mane of black hair and vaguely Teutonic accent, Wiseau is jaw-droppingly miscast as a Regular Joe romantic lead. He looks like he should be playing a death-metal singer or a Viking warrior.
The film's backstory is just as mythically muddled. Rumors abound regarding its production, chief among them that Wiseau bankrolled the estimated $6 million production by importing leather jackets from Korea. (A distortion, he says: "I designed an American leather jacket, and we imported it from Korea on my design.") Asked to explain his age and background, Wiseau is less forthcoming. "That has nothing to do with what I do," he says. "My private life is my private life." In 2003, he booked The Room for two weeks at a Los Angeles theater, rented a billboard to advertise it on L.A.'s Highland Avenue and submitted it to the Academy Awards. Apart from a middling review in Variety, Hollywood paid little attention. But word was spreading of the film's unique appeal. After two weeks, Wiseau says, audiences were camping out outside the theater. Popularized by YouTube and name-dropped by famous fans (comedian David Cross and actress Kristen Bell both sing the film's praises), The Room has found devoted fans across the country. It has also shown in Canada, Australia and the U.K.
"It's just so ego-based and so melodramatic, like the strongest, most vulnerable thing you can imagine," says New Yorker George Gross, one of the organizers behind the Ziegfeld screening. "It just collapses upon itself." Spellbound by the film after seeing it in October 2008, Gross and two friends acquired a print of The Room from Wiseau and screen it at Village East Cinema once a month to sellout crowds.
Now that one man's poorly made vanity project has become a cult hit, it would be easy to paint the film as a sideshow attraction that exists only to be mocked. But Wiseau insists that The Room is deeper than its critics would suggest, full of layers of symbolism. (A question about the underwear subplot brings forth his ideas on privacy, respect and the way people treat their neighbors in Indiana.) Indeed, at least one screening attendee at the Ziegfeld has written a paper on The Room as ironic comedy. Most fans say they have genuine appreciation for the man and the film, and come to screenings not to bury Wiseau but praise him. "It's a celebration," says Gross. "Like, 'Here's one of my favorite jokes: Yay!' "