What Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” is really about
A close watch of this 2003 film lays bare a veritable buffet of stilted acting, baffling continuity issues, illogical editing, and a plot that boggles the mind. And yet, somehow, it’s an intensely fascinating piece cinematography.
The Room has been mocked, memed and memorized by fans. It’s been snark-analyzed to death. And yet, nobody has ever been able to figure out what this bizarre film means.
What is The Room really about?
One dreary evening, deep into the season of lockdown, I decided to really watch The Room for the first time. I say “really watch” because I’d seen The Room before. I’d watched The Nostalgia Critic’s review and I Hate Everything’s “The Search for the Worst” episode. I’d read The Disaster Artist and I’d seen James Franco’s adaptation of the book.
But this time, for the first time, I watched The Room without any critical intermediaries whatsoever: no GIFs, no online jokesters, no memoirs, no YouTube scene-by-scene breakdowns, no Mystery Science Theater 3000 style riffing. And no other cringing, giggling viewers.
I was all alone: just me and The Room.
The truth was revealed to me that night.
And now, I will reveal it to you: The Room is a porno periodically interrupted by a reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
I mean this literally. The Room is literally a soft-core porn film that has, for its narrative through-line, a prequel to Hamlet told from the POV of Queen Gertrude woven through it.
The porno part is easy enough to see. There are five insanely protracted sex scenes in the one hour and forty minute film, each of which keeps going and going and going…way, way, WAY beyond the point of artistic value, narrative utility, and actor/audience discomfort. The set-up for each sex scene is laughably flimsy, bordering on satire of the classic “arrival of the pizza delivery guy” cliche. They don’t move the plot forward and they have no reason for existing, save good old-fashioned titillation.
I won’t speculate as to whether writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau, a man of mysterious origins, was operating under the “write what you know” mindset in this arena.
But I will speculate regarding the Shakespearean angle. As Wiseau’s co-star, Greg Sestero, wrote in his 2013 memoir, The Disaster Artist, “I’d told Tommy what I thought about The Room several times, which was that the script didn’t make any sense. Characters’ motivations changed from scene to scene, important plot points were raised and then dropped, and all of the dialogue sounded exactly the same, which is to say, it sounded exactly like Tommy’s unique understanding of the English language.”
Ah ha! But that’s precisely what the casual theater-goer might say about Hamlet.
I said “casual” theater-goer. As in, a lad or lassie who stumbles upon an amateurish Shakespeare in the Park production without having been exposed to the work of Willy S. since some desultory Freshman English class during which their 14-year-old self only half-listened to the clumsy read-aloud by the teacher. I’m not talking about theater nerds, English majors, or lovers of the Immortal Bard here. Do you remember all the characters and plot points of Troilus and Cressida? Then, sad to say, I’m talking about you (and about myself, sadder to say, since I have a bachelor’s degree in theater).
Anyway, I don’t know if Wiseau is aware of The Wide World of Porn, but he is definitely familiar with the works of Shakespeare.
The first time Sestero met Wiseau, it was in an acting class during which Wiseau performed a selection from Shakespeare. The reaction of the teacher, as well as Sestero and the rest of the students, provides a clue as to the genesis of The Room.
“‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds,’ he began, ‘admit impediments.’ He bludgeoned his way through the rest, each line a mortal enemy. Where the sonnet demanded clear speech, he mumbled; when it asked for music, he went singsong. Everything he said was obviously the product of diligent mismemorization, totally divorced from the emotion the words were trying to communicate. He was terrible, reckless, and mesmerizing. … ‘What is it exactly,’ [the teacher] finally said, ‘that you’re trying to do here?’”
Later, Sestero recalls Wiseau’s plan to take his Shakespearean efforts elsewhere. “‘You know what I’m thinking? Maybe I take some classes there. Maybe I go to this A.C.T. Why not! I try Shakespeare and the voice class. I need to lose this stupid accent.’”
Wiseau didn’t give up. He recited one of Shakespeare’s sonnets at a screening of The Room in San Francisco. And again, at a screening of The Room in New York.
And then there’s the way Wiseau got himself a coveted SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card. As Sestero recalls, “The tape began and there was Tommy, in colorful quasi-Shakespearean garb, standing on a staircase and holding a candelabra filled with lit candles while classical music played in the background. His opening line: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ It was a commercial for Street Fashions that he’d written, filmed, and produced himself.”
The dude may or may not like him some porn. But he loves him some Shakespeare. Specifically, Hamlet.
From this point on, we’re going to approach this inquiry as I approached the film that dark and smoky night, with a tiny cherry pie in one hand, a huge glass of red wine in the other, and the Death of the Author (or, in this case, Auteur) Theory in mind. With minds wide open, let us consider The Room: Shakespeare Fan Fiction.
From the opening credits, one would assume that this is a vanity project (written by Tommy Wiseau, directed by Tommy Wiseau, produced by Tommy Wiseau, starring Tommy Wiseau). And one would be right. But, one would also assume that the role Tommy Wiseau plays, “Johnny,” is the protagonist — the starring role.
One would be wrong.
The protagonist of The Room is Lisa, Johnny’s faithless fiancée, who cheats on him with his best friend, Mark.
Lisa acts. Johnny is acted upon. Lisa makes decisions, has goals, and changes over the course of the film. Johnny is passive. He does not change and takes no decisive action until the end of the movie when he slap-fights his ex-pal Mark, breaks some stuff in a todder-at-bedtime tantrum, then (trigger warning [heh]) shoots himself in the mouth. To death!
Mark is the antagonist, because he tries (whilst assisting her in cheating on Johnny) to prevent Lisa from attaining her goal; namely, to break up with Johnny, which is something she really, really wants to do. A secondary antagonist is Lisa’s mother, Claudette, for the same reason (minus the cheating, perverts).
Each of these characters in The Room, and all the others as yet undiscussed, has a direct analogue in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Lisa is Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mom.
Johnny is Hamlet’s dad, a.k.a The Ghost.
Mark is Claudius, brother to The Ghost, and stepdad to Hamlet.
Denny is Hamlet. Denny is a peculiar adult-child who lives in the same building (castle) as Johnny, Lisa, and Mark. Denny regards Johnny as a father-figure. Johnny wanted to adopt him at one point. It is stated, in on-screen dialogue, that young Denny is over 18 and in college, but his behavior is creepily childlike and socially unsettling. Superficially, this is a function of the character’s Hamlet-style madness. But that’s not the whole story. I’ve got a rock-solid explanation for the oddness of Denny that we’ll get to shortly.
As for Claudette, let’s just say Claudius … Claudette? And let you draw your own conclusions as to where Wiseau got the name.
But there’s more!
Johnny’s psychologist pal, Peter, is Polonius, the pompous counselor to King Claudius in Hamlet. Get it? Counselor to the past king, Johnny … counselor to the future king, Mark.
Ophelia is a chick named Elizabeth; Denny-Hamlet mentions he’s in love with her, but we never see her on screen.
There are also a handful of supernumerary characters who pop in and out for dramatic/comic purposes, very much à la Shakespearean play structure.
San Francisco is Denmark, and Johnny and Lisa’s apartment building is Castle Elsinore.
Let’s now discuss each of these proto- Hamlet characters, one by one.
He was correctly labeled by script supervisor Sandy Schklair as “the weirdest character I’ve encountered in twenty-five years of filmmaking,” but incorrectly dismissed by Sestero as “a man-child Peeping Tom neighbor who has no purpose in the story other than to ambiguously propose a threesome and be saved from a drug dealer.”
Wrong! Denny’s purpose in the story and his weirdness have a single, very clear explanation. In a twist on the usual “madness of Hamlet” motif, Denny is a drug addict. Every time we see him, he is high as balls.
This is established by the only moderately well-acted scene in The Room. A drug dealer named Chris-R shows up on the roof of the building (a.k.a. the battlements of Castle Elsinore) where Denny’s just hangin’ out with a basketball for some reason (spoiler: the reason is drugs!) The scene was originally shot in an alley, but the move to the roof is obvious, as the roof/battlements is the site where The Ghost does his ghostly haunting in O.G. Hamlet.
Chris-R pulls a gun and demands, “Where’s my money?!” Denny whimpers, “It’s coming! It’ll be here in a few minutes!”
And who shows up “in a few minutes”? Johnny. And…
Much has been made of Mark’s apparent lack of anything resembling a job in The Room. For a film that makes each character’s career quite clear (Johnny is a banker, Lisa works with computers as some sort of consultant, Peter is a psychologist, Denny is a student, and so forth), Mark’s occupation and day-to-day activities alone are undefined.
It has been speculated — in large part due to a scene in which Mark is seen taking a call in an unmoving car while wearing badass aviators, and a later scene when he inexplicably shaves his beard as if it had been a disguise that’s no longer needed — that Mark is an undercover cop.
This is incorrect.
Mark is a drug dealer.
The only time we see him doing anything approaching “work” is when he offers Peter-Claudius a joint, pitching its quality like a consummate salesman.
Further evidence of this arises when one considers that there are two characters who engage in near-identical acts of violence: Chris-R and Mark. After Peter-Polonius rejects his drugs, Mark-Claudius tries to throw him off the roof.
Most significantly, when Johnny and Mark arrive to save Denny from Chris-R, Mark wrests Chris-R’s gun away from him and points it in an unexpectedly seasoned manner at his head. Johnny stays with the man-boy to comfort him; Mark manhandles Chris-R off the roof. Chris-R is ominously never seen again.
This is what’s going down off-screen while the film is trudging though sex scene after dismal sex scene: Denny is buying drugs from Chris-R. Some of them he uses, the remainder he sells to Mark, who marks ’em up and sells ’em on, in true capitalist fashion. Mark has long desired to cut out the competition. After the roof confrontation, Mark “disappears” Chris-R and takes over his turf. Mark becomes king of the mean streets of San Francisco … just like Claudius becomes king of Denmark in all but name until his brother could be “disappeared.”
Johnny is portrayed in the other characters’ dialogue as some kind of banking executive. But a close listen to what Johnny himself says, and a good look at the ill-fitting suit and wildly flowing locks he sports, indicates that this is impossible.
When asked how he met the feckless Lisa, he states, “When I moved to San Francisco with two suitcases and I didn’t know anyone and I have, uh, I head to YMCA with a $2000 check which I could not cash. … Well because it was an out of state bank. Anyway, uh, I was working as a busboy in a hotel, and uh, uh, she was sitting, drinking her coffee, and she was so beautiful, and I say hi to her. That’s how we met.”
The dude was living at the YMCA and working as a busboy. Seven years later, he is supposedly a high-level banking executive up for a big promotion. And how is this promotion framed?
“That son of a bitch told me that I would get it within three months. I save them bundles. They’re crazy. I don’t think I will ever get it. They betray me, they didn’t keep their promise, they tricked me, and I don’t care anymore. … The bank saves money, and they are using me, and I am the fool.”
That’s not how it works in the banking industry at the executive level. That’s how it works for low-level retail workers. Promotions are dangled, then withdrawn without explanation; the low-wage worker gripes impotently to a loved one, utterly without recourse, and hopes maybe the promotion will still happen somehow, someday. Had Johnny been an executive, his lines would be all about contacting a head-hunter, taking his clients to a competitor, or strategizing how to undermine the unnamed “son of a bitch” who blocked his career advancement.
Johnny is a branch teller at best. He’s the weak king who must be killed to make way for the potent mate desired by the queen.
We’ve saved the most interesting character for last. The queen herself. She is unifaceted evil. She’s Lady Macbeth without nuance. She’s, as psychologist Peter opines, “a sociopath.” She’s so singularly one-dimensional that there’s nothing for her to do but coil ever tighter and tighter around the bitter core of misogyny that inspired her character until she morphs from lazy feminine stereotype to badly written she-devil to magnificent bitch goddess.
Let’s compare Lisa to the Queen Gertrude character on a show that was openly adapted from Hamlet, the motorcycle gang drama Sons of Anarchy.
Biker mama Gemma and Lisa share an identical psychological profile. Both are ruthlessly self-centered. Both have troubled relationships with their mothers. Both are openly contemptuous of the weakness of their first husbands, whose deaths they play more than a small part in bringing about. Both are positioned as irresistible creatures who pride themselves on controlling their men both in and out of the bedroom through a blend of manipulation, deceit, and sexual artifice.
But Lisa is no mere antagonist like Gemma. This becomes clear by the end of the film when, in a final act of spectacularly reckless and completely illogical cruelty, the density of her wickedness explodes into a supernova of evil and she becomes a glorious, sublime anti-hero.
During Johnny’s surprise birthday party, arranged by Lisa The Cheata, he happily announces, “Hey everybody! I have an announcement to make. We’re expecting!”
Lisa’s best friend takes her aside and urges her to stop torturing him and just go the hell on and break up with the poor bastard. Lisa says she’ll get around to it after the party is over. And, oh by the way, “There is no baby. … I told him that to make it interesting.”
It’s a move so incandescently malicious, so heartlessly villainous, so jaw-droppingly sadistic that her character transcends the shitty script, the slapdash cinematography, the shoddy directing. She is Heisenberg . She is The Joker. She is Chaotic Evil. Does she look like someone with a plan? Some women just want to watch the world burn. Say her name: Lisa.
She has become the queen.
The final frames of the film confirm this. Johnny, driven to despair by the betrayal of his future wife and his brotherly best friend, kills himself. Mark-Claudius, usurper of King Johnny in the queen’s bed, is suddenly and unwittingly transformed into the usurper of Johnny’s father-figure role in Denny-Hamlet’s life. He tries to reject Lisa and, by implication, his future stepdadhood.
But there’s no denying the queen. In the last shots, he kneels beside the slack body of the fallen king with Lisa-Gertrude and Denny-Hamlet in an uneasy nuclear family triad. The king is dead, killed indirectly — but only marginally so — by his almost-wife and practically-brother … by Hamlet’s mother and stepfather.
So, yeah. The Room is soft-core porn plus Hamlet.
Or maybe I’ve just been in lockdown way, way too long.
Originally published at http://the-delve.com on September 24, 2020.