Tommy Wiseau's magnum opus The Room is a cult classic that never fails to entertain. It retains its charm despite multiple re-watchings, and its terribleness never seems to get old. One thing that strikes the viewer when watching is how personal the film is. It's clear elements of the plot reflect events in Tommy Wiseau's life. But which parts?
In order to separate likely historical events from embellishment and artistic license, we can make use of a principle called the criterion of embarrassment. The idea is that, assuming The Room is at least somewhat autobiographical, the parts that are most embarassing for the character Johnny are likely to have a kernel of truth. We'll also use some ad-hoc reasoning where it seems appropriate.
To begin with, we must assume the character Johnny is Tommy Wiseau himself. Throughout the movie, Johnny is held up as a (literally) unbelievably admired self-sacrificing paragon of virtue. The other characters receive almost no real backstory or motivation. Because of this, it's reasonable to conclude that Tommy only understood the events from his own perspective and was unable to give convincing motivations to characters representing other people.
Johnny is well liked at his job, by the florist ("You're my favorite customer") and by Lisa's mother, Claudette. No one has anything bad to say about him initially. Mark visits, but we never learn what he does for a living, or anything about his life. He seems singularly defined by his relationship with Johnny, as his best friend. Similarly Lisa has no backstory. We simply know she loves Johnny at the start, and that they are engaged. They never talk about how they met or about anything in their past together. It's never discussed whether she has a job or career or aspirations, she is simply Johnny's fiancee.
Turning to the character of Denny, things get a bit more interesting. At first glance, the character seems utterly unrealistic, likely fabricated by Tommy. He comes into the house unannounced, interrupting Johnny and Lisa in bed, and seems fantastically naive and innocent. But on closer examination, he remarkably has a backstory where the other main characters have none! Johnny took him in, and is paying his rent (another example of selfless Johnny). All of the other side characters seemingly fail the "Johnny-Bechdel Test", where they are either in conversation with Johnny or talking about him. Denny is different, because his misadventure with the drug dealer is unrelated to Johnny entirely. The scene is with the drug dealer has a clear goal of showing Johnny is a good guy, but the events of the scene are not sins against Johnny or praise for Johnny, which stands out. Given this, we have some circumstantial evidence that Denny represents a real person that Tommy Wiseau knew. Despite this scene not being about Johnny, it still does not reveal any ability by Tommy Wiseau to give a convincing backstory to a character. Denny is simply accosted by the drug dealer, and we find out he's bought drugs, apparently on credit. The lack of any insight into what made Denny want drugs is indicative that Tommy Wiseau was baffled by the historical version of the event himself.
After Denny, the other main characters that likely exist are Lisa and Mark. While neither of them have developed backstories, they are central to harm done to Johnny. Without both of them existing, the story doesn't exist. This isn't to say it's impossible, but here we're assuming the basic events in The Room has some basis in fact, and under that assumption we must also assume Mark and Lisa represent real people. Some further circumstantial evidence that Mark exists is provided by the (ever so slightly) conflicted morality of Mark. At first, he's loyal to Johnny, and resists Lisa's advances. Given Tommy Wiseau's seemingly limited ability to peer into the minds of others or create realistic motivations, there's a reasonable chance this moral hesitation by Mark indicates that Tommy didn't want to portray his friend as completely evil. Additionally, since Tommy was betrayed by Mark, and this is an embarassing admission, we get some further credence to the idea that it really happened. If Johnny was as perfect as depicted in the movie, he would most certainly have picked better friends.
By way of contrast, with Lisa we see no convincing motivation for why she turns on Johnny. As far as the movie is concerned she is suddenly and inexplicably sick of Johnny and wants Mark. At no point does she either express any moral qualms about what she's doing to Johnny, or give any reason why she's done with him. She simply states, "I don't like him any more. He's boring". This increases our confidence that any events that betray an inner life are not intentionally invented by Tommy Wiseau, but rather literal accounts of true events. Even a hamfisted attempt to give Lisa a realistic motivation would be better than what the movie provides. By inserting details from true events into the story, Tommy inadvertantly gives inner life to some if the characters, even if it is inconsistent.
This inconsistency is really central to explaining some of the Room's most famous non-sequitors. For example, when Claudette reveals she has breast cancer, only to never mention it again in the movie, we can see this as Tommy adding a real life fact, rather than indicating that Tommy wanted to add depth to the character. Since he doesn't follow up with it, it's unlikely to be a detail he invented himself for the plot. From this we have to conclude that Claudette is likely a real person. Gauging by her sympathetic treatment in the movie, she is (or was) someone that Tommy liked.
Next, we examine the event where Lisa is having a drink and invites Johnny to drink too. He protests with "Lisa, you know I don't drink." And she replies with "Oh, come on." and pours him a glass with a lot of extremely hard liquor. Immediately, he gives up his life of teetotalling and has a drink, quickly agreeing "It tastes good." This is an embarassing character failure for Johnny. In addition, he was led to this failure by the faithless Lisa. It's fair to say this is likely inspired by real events, since it's a chink in the perfect image Tommy paints of himself. But it's also clear that this is a poorly remembered or intentionally altered version of events, since the details are too far fetched to have happened exactly.
Finally, we see Johnny kill himself due to everybody betraying him, and being fed up with this world. This is likely a case of revenge fantasy. In reality, he was cheated on, tricked or lied to by people very close to him, and they parted ways after it was over. The offending parties in all likelihood never received their comeuppance, so this ending is a way of Tommy playing out the fantasy of making them regret what they'd done. Lisa thinks Johnny's death is an opening to be with Mark, but Mark wants nothing to do with her. Everything is going to be terrible for Lisa now because of her inscrutable capricious motives!
The Room is a movie that has a certain kind of perfection, seemingly making every mistake a rookie writer, actor or director could make, repeatedly and without shame. Movies this awful just aren't made: it never gets funding, or the money runs out, or the director accepts at least some good advice or compromise with the actors and others involved in the film. Mercifully, none of that occurred with The Room. It is the unequivocal product of Tommy Wiseau's writing talent, directing talent, and acting prowess. This is exactly the movie he wanted to make.
- historical analysis