The Room is the great auterial work of the modern age. Its mastermind, Tommy Wiseau, produced, wrote, directed and starred in this incisive portrait of blind love and betrayal, much in the same way that Orson Welles oversaw every element of his work. The end result is both a delirious black comedy and a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams. Set against the backdrop of San Francisco, The Room charts the downfall of a relationship, splintering the bonds of friendship and romance until the very fabric of the universe threatens to pull apart.
Wiseau plays Johnny, the star employee of a local bank -- "I save them bundles," he boasts. Engaged to his beautiful, sexy girlfriend of five years (or seven; love blurs the memory, no?), Lisa, Johnny has the ultimate life. But when he doesn't get that big promotion he was promised, Johnny sees that life begin to unravel. Lisa decides that she no longer loves Johnny, falling instead for Mark (Greg Sestero), who is Johnny's best friend. "Johnny's my best friend," he says.
These concrete details subsequently fade into elliptical snatches of plot. After Johnny fails to receive his promotion, Lisa consoles him by making the alcohol-averse Johnny a delicious cocktail of whiskey and vodka; the next morning, Lisa tells her mother, Claudette, that Johnny got too drunk and hit her. Claudette has her own issues, faced with her greedy brother attempting to collect some money off her property sale, as well as grim test results that leave no doubt that she has breast cancer. Other characters filter in and out of Johnny's apartment, such as Denny, a boy of indiscriminate intelligence whom Johnny discovered as an orphan and helped raise. Denny brings with him his own issues, from his confused feelings for Lisa and a terrifying encounter with a drug dealer that leaves us wondering what kind of drugs Denny bought, and with what kind of money.
With the introduction and subsequent dissolution of such plot lines, Wiseau weaves a grand tapestry of modern life and its effect on humanity. In that sense, The Room falls in line with the works of the great Ozu Yasujiro; Wiseau even uses generous pillow shots of San Francisco, contrasting the city's beauty and its cultural touchstones, chiefly the Golden Gate Bridge, with the profanity of such eyesores as the Disney store. These generous establishing shots serve another purpose: to give the audience a much-needed constant in the world around the room as Johnny's own world warps into something unrecognizable. What is happening to Johnny is unnoticed by the rest of the world, though his tragedy speaks to us all.
This ingenious decision is one of the more evident in The Room, but Wiseau has a number of tricks up his sleeve. Though shot in San Francisco, Wiseau uses a green-screen backdrop of the cityscape when on the roof, highlighting the separation of the building from the rest of San Francisco and its protagonist from reality. Too, it's Wiseau's wry commentary on the falsity of modern cinema, and of life: filmmakers use CGI even when they could go outside and film what they're rendering, just as many people live on the Internet on such alternate reality programs as Second Life. (Wiseau's decision to overdub his own voice highlights this reality/surreality break.)
Wiseau confines the majority of the action to the titular room, in a manner not unlike Roman Polanski's lauded trilogy of psychological terrors centered in apartments. Where The Room departs from Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant, however, is its thematic ambition. Polanski's films do have some social relevance, particularly the view and treatment of women in Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, but Polanski remains in the mind, using the film stock to form a link between audience and character. Wiseau has no need for that: his film speaks so truthfully to the human condition that such stylization would seem overly manipulative. Yet the director does make use of the apartment to communicate his protagonist's state of mind: the first floor is vibrant, almost Lynchian red, its connoted passion at first reflected in the happy relationship between Johnny and Lisa. Later, that passion applies to the affairs that occur there -- not simply between Lisa and Mark, either -- as well as Johnny's rage when faced with Lisa's sudden change of heart. As in Nicholas Ray's great Bigger Than Life, a central image is the stairwell that separates the first floor from the second, though Wiseau reverses the significance of both. Here, it is the second floor, with its gossamer-draped bed, that reflects the more proper, even sacred, tone and the downstairs area that offers the profane intrusion of wrath and adultery; as Claudette notes, the first floor may as well be Grand Central Station as numerous people bring their vice inside. Just as the stairs served as the transition point between idyll and terror, so too does the stairwell in Johnny's apartment, a modern, plastic and metallic spiral case in contrast to the austere wooden set in the Avery household, show the downturn in Lisa and Johnny's relationship. Mark and Lisa's first sexual encounter, after all, occurs on the stairs, and when they eventually breach the inner sanctum of the upstairs bedroom later in the film, we know that we've reached the point of no return.
At times, Wiseau's scripting and direction border on the avant-garde. Characters repeat numerous lines, communicating the way that we defend ourselves against insecurity and the fear of upheaval by clinging to the known; for fictional characters, the only thing they know is what they've previously said and done in the script, so they attempt to return to earlier pages of the screenplay as their cruel creator pushes them toward their dark fate. Claudette's breast cancer comes at a time when she takes stock of her life, of her fractured familial bonds and the relationships that failed because of her avarice and cruelty, and as we the audience see Lisa slowly becoming her. Like the playwright in Synecdoche, New York, Claudette's physical deterioration matches her inner unfulfillment and disquiet, but Lisa is too self-absorbed to see her future before her eyes. "Don't worry about it," Lisa says to assuage her mother's cancer fears, a line often repeated by most of the film's characters. Not one of them wants to face their personal apocalypse, so they reassure each other constantly in the hopes that, this time, maybe there really is nothing to worry about. Wiseau often blurs the image, visualizing the doubt between characters as bonds of trust are broken and also the desperate blindness with which the characters ignore the truth. Wiseau somehow outdoes himself when he replaces the actor playing Peter, Johnny and Mark's psychologist friend, with another performer. It's the subtlest act of the film, despite being the most instantly noticeable: Ozu studied modernity through the widening generation gap, but Wiseau understands that the change has affected even the younger generations. People now come and go in an instant, losing contact with a friend and picking up a new one to fill the missing place, only moderately distinguishable from its last occupant.
But I am spoiling too many of The Room's bountiful pleasures, and I must stop now lest I remotely taint the emotional devastation of its finale. At one point, Johnny remarks that we should all love one another (I will leave his poetic wording for you), and Wiseau uses The Room to conceptualize a world without true love. The film's biggest triumph, however, is its resurrection of interactive cinema, which died with the silent films. Audiences used to participate in the theater, adding their own dialogue and emoting with wild abandon. In his own way, without appropriating the classical styles of early filmmaking, Wiseau captures the spirit of the silent age as readily as Guy Maddin. In an age of lazy, disaffected moviegoing, here is a film that inspires the sort of audience cooperation that most filmmakers can only dream of evoking. So, what are you waiting for? Go experience it for yourself. Unless you're just a chicken. Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep...