Part of the fun of going to see something new from an artist whose work you’ve enjoyed in the past is the nervous uncertainty of it all. You’re going to see one of your favorite bands debut songs from their new album; will it connect with you the way their earlier work did? The premiere of a new movie by a director you admire is similarly anticipatory: Sure, you liked the previous films, but will this one live up to them? Ultimately, the track record is your guiding light, and it leads you to expect something good.
Unless, of course, the artist in question is Tommy Wiseau. Then, to paraphrase Greg Sestero, the expectation is disaster. But it’s not the sort of schadenfreude that comes from hoping someone will fail; rather, it’s hoping they will fail in a very particular, very spectacular, very entertaining way—a kind of failure that passes through the looking glass and becomes a success. This is the kind of success that defines The Room, a movie that has come to embody the definition of “best worst movie” for a generation of filmgoers. The cult following it has generated (and the wildly popular, ritual-filled screenings that have developed in the wake of its cult fanbase) neatly straddles the line between unabashed pleasure and MST3K-style scorching of the Earth. The midnight sing-alongs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show now have a rival: the midnight mock-along.
Not that the crush of people lining Houston Avenue care why Tommy Wiseau does what he does. They’re here for the show that is Tommy. Midnight screenings in New York City, especially for cult films, engender an assumption of oddness: you’re often waiting to see if someone from the crowd, maybe one of the people dressed like a character from the film, is going to make a spectacle. For this world-premiere screening of Wiseau’s The Neighbors (on a double bill with The Room), we’re all just waiting for one guy to be the spectacle.
I arrived 45 minutes early to grab a decent place in line. At 11:15 p.m., the line was already threatening to wend its way around the corner of the block. The first thing I noticed was a group of six or seven people in front of me, who all seem to only speak Greek. There was an equally large group of folks a couple feet behind speaking Spanish. (The language of bad cinema is universal.) The number of costumes inspired by The Room was fairly restrained: There were a few “Lisa” types in red dresses, and one ersatz Wiseau brushed by, wearing a red backpack and smoking. But honestly, there were more people garbed in the souvenir “You’re Tearing Me Apart!” T-shirts (available inside the venue, naturally). Unlike Rocky Horror, this crowd doesn’t try to embody its protagonist—there’s no equivalent to Dr. Frank N. Furter here. The unspoken understanding seems to be that only Tommy is Tommy.
Almost 20 minutes before midnight, the line started moving and we were ushered inside, which, frankly, is a damn miracle. Punctuality like that for ticket lines could be bottled and sold; they’d net billions. Soon, however, it become clear why they rushed us through the doors. Tommy, we’re informed, is going to be bouncing back and forth between the multiple theaters they’ve booked for this The Neighbors/The Room double-billing tonight, in order to do Q&A sessions one after the other. As a result, The Neighbors began minutes after we were seated, like an overeager puppy pushing its way out of the barely wrapped gift box on Christmas morning so it can start being appreciated.
And how was it? The short answer: pretty bad. And not in the lovingly curated, endless-attention-to-the-weirdest-things way that The Room is bad. The plot, such as it is, sees Wiseau as Charlie, the manager (owner?) of an apartment building populated by a motley assemblage of “characters” whose antics and penchants for stirring up trouble are clearly meant to drive the narrative. Instead, it comes across like outtakes from an otherworldly version of The Love Boat, with romantic entanglements, fights between clashing neighbors, and the ongoing high jinks of Charlie and his loyal assistant to deal with all these problems.
The bad lighting and horrible staging is to be expected from a Wiseau production. However, in this case, we’re also treated to some of the worst sound imaginable. Half of the dialogue was nearly incomprehensible, either for reasons of delivery or sound mixing. The other half was hampered by a roomful of hooting fans drowning everything out. Here is a sampling of the various stories:
1. Charlie or his assistant continually loan $20 to a tenant, who then, in an unexpected comic twist, spins around and uses that same bill to pay off whichever of the two of them lent him $20 the previous week.
2. A woman named Philadelphia, whose sole outfit is a hot-pink bikini, alternates between making out with a handyman (wearing large-printed “WISEAU”-brand underwear), interacting with another shirtless delivery guy (who ends up applying to live in the building two minutes later), and stopping by Charlie’s office, because, hey, that actress was still around.
3. An older woman desperately searches for her pet chicken. She either screams at people or marches into their apartment without permission, searching for said chicken. It involves endless screaming, and is deeply unpleasant.
4. A fight between a black guy and an Asian guy that trafficked in so many racial stereotypes (or outright prejudices) I half-expected to see a story credit for Don Imus.
5. A blond-wigged Wiseau and his girlfriend buying a shotgun from a stoner, only his girlfriend uses her powers of hypnosis (don’t ask) to trick the stoner into giving her the gun for free.
There were more. They went by in a blur, not only because the room was boisterous, but because many of the scenes were so brief and incoherent that you couldn’t really get a handle on them. I’m sure repeated viewings will lend at least a slightly increased understanding of what was taking place. As it was, trying to write down brief summaries of each act was an exercise in futility. Better, probably, to let the experience wash over you, like a cool wave of latent sexism and blatantly racist caricatures and jokes.
Part of the magic of The Room is that you spend so much time with the characters, you’re able to get a feel for the deeply weird spirit with which Wiseau imbued them all. Flying through a quick cavalcade of one-note, shrieking weirdos was less than fun, even though, at times, Wiseau’s cracked sensibility shone through. (All of the scenes he was in were easily the best, for the obvious reason that Tommy is the best embodiment of his own sensibility.)
As far as the experience of watching The Neighbors, it was both more and less weird than I had expected. Some of it was predictable: Collective participation can take basically any form, so long as the participants have a rough sense of what’s expected from them. As long as people know the score, marching in unison isn’t so tough. Since people came in planning to point and laugh, that is often what transpires. However, the loudest and most consistent laughs were from small, scattered pockets around the room: four tipsy college friends here, a clutter of Williamsburg representatives there. A guy in front of me bellowed, with jocular scorn, “What’s that about?” at least a half-dozen times.
It should be said that the straight-up incoherence of much of Wiseau’s ostensible sitcom pilot (it runs about 40 minutes) leads to a certain amount of incoherence in the reactions to it. The Neighbors has such a dearth of comprehensible action that it leaves the audience foundering. As a result, any cue for how to respond is gratefully clawed at, like a jelly doughnut before the start of a particularly fraught PTA meeting. This is most evident between scenes, when a shot of the same building exterior, over and over, is accompanied by a thumping house beat, leading audience members to enthusiastically pump their fists each time it appears, as it gives them something simple to do.
Other than that, many of us were often lost. Still, there was almost always someone laughing in the room. It was laughter without prompts, sometimes set off by the mere appearance of an odd-looking character. (The first appearance of Wiseau, bewigged in that messy blond ’do, triggered a reaction roughly equivalent to that of a Marine base hearing the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death for the first time.) The audience makes it a good time through sheer force of will. It feels like nothing so much as people who’ve never heard a particular song before shoved in front of a karaoke microphone and told to give it their all. They make the best of it. By the end of The Neighbors, some people are just shouting out Monty Python references. Why not?
The credits had barely begun to roll when we were told to “make some noise” for Tommy, who strode in like Motley Crüe taking the still-darkened stage. (It remained fairly dark, for reasons unclear to us but likely dictated by Tommy.) Wiseau, dressed in a blue polka-dotted tie, black vest, white shirt, and an uncountable number of belts and wallet-chain attachments, had little desire to play the role of the oddball logic-void some of the crowd seemed to expect him to embody. Instead, he came across as someone in rock-star mode, and the rituals that accompany his public appearances (repeating certain stock phrases, delivering a religious blessing on the head of a pre-selected fan) are clearly less “weird” to him than others seem to assume. They seem, rather, the motions of any relatively famous person who’s developed an onstage shtick—for Wiseau, they’re symbolic of his stature as someone with a dedicated fan base that expects a certain persona.
And Wiseau delivers. Is Tommy happy to be here? Tommy is. Is the audience happy to be here? Magnify Tommy’s mood by a factor of 10, and that’s how happy the audience is, aided by libations or not. The questions and answers passed by in rapid succession. Tommy delivered one-liners like a Borscht Belt comedian. (“My mother always told me don’t steal. Unless you can. Ha-ha.”) He slides “ha-ha” into his speech so often, it feels like a verbal tic: Sometimes it’s there to emphasize a joke, other times it’s just punctuation. (“Today I’m laughing, ha-ha.” “Now you see my point. Ha-ha.”) There were numerous potshots at Greg Sestero, best-friend-turned-nemesis, as a result of Sestero’s The Disaster Artist (a book-length account of filming The Room, which, despite an obvious affection for Wiseau, often portrays him as a vain blowhard). “I mean, I won’t say anything bad, he’s my friend.” Pause. “Supposedly, ha-ha.”
The questions continued. Will characters from The Room guest star on Neighbors? No. Are you going to be in Samurai Cop 2? He may do it. Why didn’t Danny [young character from The Room] ever study? “He did. But, I mean, he was also kind of retarded.” (That last answer is paraphrased, by which I mean Wiseau said “retarded” in various iterations a dozen more times. It would seem more offensive it there wasn’t a suspicion that Wiseau hadn’t the faintest idea there could be any controversy about the word.) And with that, he was off, pausing only briefly to interact with a female audience member (“Oh, hey beautiful, you’ve just been knighted by Tommy”) on his way out.
And here the screening of The Room began. If a normal viewing of The Room is raucous, this one was an alternated manic-cum-lazy version. Some of the shouting seemed almost frantic, as if the safety of the now-familiar lines could counteract the inchoate confusion of The Neighbors. Sure, there was the usual spoon-throwing gusto; the shouts of “Sestosterone!”; the gleeful applause for every completed tracking shot of the entire Golden Gate Bridge, and so on. But other aspects seemed oddly muted: the football tossing, normally a cheerful back-and-forth in the aisles, instead got randomly thrown between seats. Some gentlemen, as is to be expected in any situation that encourages boisterous participation from every individual, seemed a bit gross in his efforts to channel The Benson Interruption. But overall, most of it was perfectly charming, and, at this point, perfectly predictable, as reassuring as homemade comfort food.
And that was the overall vibe of the night: reassurance. The spectacle was not so much Wiseau as it was the event itself: The spectacle was a self-generating, self-fulfilling prophecy from people looking to experience one. The audience spent the first half compensating for the inexplicable The Neighbors by overly engaging with it. By the end of it, people had already decided on a new catchphrase from the show (Wiseau’s awkward “What a day!”), which was promptly integrated into the now-familiar fun of The Room.
And Wiseau himself seemed to genuinely enjoy it. There was a moment, shortly before the end of The Neighbors, when Wiseau was ushered into the room, right behind me, to catch the last couple of minutes. Suddenly, I heard him laughing. A weird moment in The Neighbors had occasioned a large uproar from the crowd, and he drank in the positive reaction. It felt like a well-earned moment for him. Whether they were laughing at the intended sitcom laugh-line or cackling at the strangeness of it all was less important to him than the fact that, in some weird way, Tommy Wiseau had moved them at all.