The first time I watched The Room, I couldn’t stand it. A friend had recommended the movie, but it was riddled with cheesy dialogue, stilted acting and continuity errors. When it finally reached its conclusion, I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding in. I had no idea what I had just watched. The most coherent thought I had was that Tommy Wiseau had no business being a writer, director or actor. How could a movie be this terrible? Why would someone who likes me show me this steaming rubbish?
A year later I gave it another chance. The same friend reassured me that it’d be better with more people. Of course I hadn’t enjoyed it the first time, he said — I had experienced it all wrong! I went in dubious, but watching The Room in a group made me realize there was something special about the communal sense of incredulity it evoked. It was far more fun to laugh, squirm and be dumbfounded together. We got to scratch our heads in unison at something far removed from the stresses of our lives.
I’m no stranger to the pull of stories for escapism. Growing up in the UAE and India, one thing that could briefly turn the tide in my family’s usual dysfunction was our collective love for film and television. Watching 1990s and early 2000s Bollywood movies with my parents and brother taught me to enjoy rich and melodramatic stories. Soap operas, more commonly known as “serials,” were a common pastime shared with my Dadima (paternal grandma) and only added fuel to the fire. The films and serials that filled my childhood were wild tales of family, duty, tradition, romance and the binary of good versus evil. They conveyed simplistic but compelling stories through over-dramatized acting, cheesy dialogue and sometimes defied laws of physics. To enjoy such stories, you had to suspend your disbelief. It helped to do this with an audience, which was easy particularly in a culture that is communal at heart.
My family relied on television and film as a common medium for spending time together, just the four of us. We’d cozy up on our couches or go to the cinema, always ending with, “So are we buying the DVD?” I loved well-executed and meaningful films that tackled topics like education, mental illness, corrupt politics and religion. But I was hesitant about the more inane excursions (usually action-heavy) that chronicled the adventures of hotshot cops and vigilantes. My dad would wave off my skepticism because what mattered was that these stories were silly fun. “Sometimes it’s nice to leave our brains at home,” he’d say. But over time, I lost patience for that approach.
My teenage years saw me struggling to fit into a society that prioritized academic excellence and conformity over wellbeing and individuality. Value was placed on the more “sensible” and lucrative careers in STEM and commerce. If you couldn’t learn at the same pace with the same methods as your classmates, you were stupid. If, like me, you hadn’t grown up in the country, you were singled out as different. So I was not booksmart enough, not neurotypical enough and not Indian enough.
Within my family, tensions deteriorated to the point that watching movies and television together stopped being fun. I retreated to my room and turned to coming-of-age fiction, a genre which gave me something no one else could offer: reassurance. Books and movies emphatically told me that I wasn’t doomed to feel alone and anxious forever. Flawed yet idealistic teachers such as Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating (Dead Poets Society) and Aamir Khan’s Ram Nikumbh (Taare Zameen Par) insisted that my passion for writing and art did not make me a failure. All these stories painted such a vivid picture of what life could be like that I decided to move overseas for college. Surely that would change everything.
I was so excited about America that I made a list of things that I had to experience — dorm room hangouts, football games, bagels, Krispy Kreme donuts. All the things on my list were a small part of the promise I had made to myself: I would forge a real sense of belonging after high school. I had a strong feeling that I could achieve this once I left India.
I looked forward to making close friends, particularly folks who also enjoyed watching and talking about movies. I couldn’t wait to go to the interactive screenings I’d read about in my then-favorite YA book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (a subplot involves the focal group of friends performing as the shadow cast of a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Though my years in the States didn’t have as many large movie events as I had imagined, they did have plenty of smaller ones that carried a sense of intimacy I had never felt before.
Watching movies and shows with my friends was fun and we liked each other’s company. After all this time, there is still nothing quite like observing what grabs a friend’s attention most, what makes them laugh, think and maybe even feel seen. As my post-college friend group grew closer and I learned more about them, I recognized a shared brand of absurd and sometimes dark humor.
My mistake when I saw The Room for the first time was that I took it too seriously. I’d strictly sought out movies that I might empathize with, turning my nose up at the schmaltzy and cringe-inducing (but earnest) stories I once knew how to enjoy. The group viewings with my friends reminded me how much of a joy it is to kick back and watch “unserious” cinema.
In my rewatches, I reveled in the clumsy acting with the leads delivering lines that might’ve been written by aliens speculating about what humans might sound like. Was Wiseau as baffled by his dialogue as we were? It sure sounded like it. As many fans do, my friends and I feverishly asked each other: Who even is Denny? Did anyone ever check on Claudette? Do tape recorders work that way? We shared a sense of befuddled awe as we tried to keep track of the strange plot progression, with characters and subplots appearing and disappearing at the drop of a hat. We felt removed from the film’s physical setting while watching many of the sloppily edited shots and we cringed at the prolonged and awkward sex scenes. Even the film’s misogyny and general tone-deafness contribute to the film’s alluring ineptitude.
Knowing all this, what is it about The Room that keeps beckoning to fans? Regardless of the final output, this film was made with complete sincerity. Plenty of films have been made with the intention of being ironically bad, but part of The Room’s charm is that Tommy Wiseau meticulously planned for it to be a serious drama. I’m in an online The Room group where someone highlighted the novelty of the fact that Wiseau eventually embraced the fact that he had made a “bad” movie. Allegedly, after a European reporter asked for Wiseau’s thoughts on his being celebrated by fans despite poor critical reception, he said, “Well, in America, bad means good.” He reframed the film as a black comedy and cashed in.
The other part of the film’s appeal is its sheer unbelievability, only fueled by the air of mystery surrounding Wiseau. He is guarded about his early life and according to Greg Sestero (who plays Mark), “When trying to express the parts of himself he seems to have lost access to, Tommy offers up fantastical, sad, self-contradictory stories.” We know him as a mysterious guy who loves America, with his perception of the country being offered to us like a caricature in The Room. No one knows how he financed the film’s production, though there’s no shortage of theories floating around online. Many of us are still figuring out how to reconcile his fanatical ambition and inflated ego with his sincerity and the kindness he shows to fans. The murky context around Wiseau blends with his film’s poor execution to form something surreal and fascinating. Even those of us who have seen it over and over are still entranced by it all — Wiseau’s peculiar mannerisms and accent, the plot holes, the lack of in-depth characterization, the random props, and so on. To quote Sestero again, “The magic of The Room derives from one thing: No one interprets the world the way Tommy Wiseau does. He is the key to The Room‘s mystery as well as the engine of its success.”
Cult film fans stand by our appreciation of stories created as passionately as The Room, even when (especially when) their outcomes miss the mark. The last and maybe most important thing that keeps us reeled in is each other. We quote The Room, we try to understand it, we share memes, we laugh till our sides hurt and we marvel at being linked by something so inconceivable. In doing all this, we give the film a meaning that is very different from its intended purpose. We keep the spirit of the film alive by flocking to late-night screenings and Q&As with Wiseau and Sestero. Whatever this film gives to fans, we give back tenfold.
There’s no better way to fully grasp the power of The Room’s fandom than to go to a midnight screening, the ultimate movie ritual. As my fondness for The Room grew with time, so did my enthusiasm to attend a screening with my best friends. So three years after my first ill-fated attempt to enjoy the film, I found myself waiting in the long queue outside the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts. The crowd was rowdy and abuzz with excitement for The Room. There were cries of “Spoon!” as we threw plastic cutlery at the screen, a nod to the ubiquitous stock photos of cutlery permeating the film. We quoted the dialogue in all its perplexing glory. As shots drifted in and out of focus, we yelled, “Focus!” It was thrilling to be around people who were unabashedly having a good time watching a truly bizarre film.
It was a relief to collectively accept the film for what it is and to watch with that understanding. Most of my friends were there (two even came in from out of town) and I was overjoyed that we were part of this together. As the screening ended, we looked at each other as if to say, “I get it now.” I felt gratitude toward the theater staff who created this space for so many of us (and cleaned up the spoons). And I silently thanked those who started this tradition years ago and those who carried it forward.
When asked about the film’s title, Wiseau’s reply was true to form — confusing but sincere: “At the time, I thought about a special place, a private place, a place where you can be safe. And it’s not a room, but it’s the room. I thought and I think that a lot of people would relate to it. So the room is a place where you can go, you can have a good time, you have a bad time, and a safe place.” It’ll be awhile before fans can physically experience The Room together again, but we’re still in this place and we make it lively and safe. I’m glad to be here and to hold the door wide open for others to come in.