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Inexplicable cult film reels ’em in at Coolidge Corner

Quirky director part of ‘The Room’s’ mystique

By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / June 19, 2010

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BROOKLINE — The screams coming from behind the Coolidge Corner Theatre on a recent Saturday night weren’t the blood-curdling kind. They were more like the raucous howls that greet rock stars, which is pretty much what it looked like when Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer, and star of “The Room,’’ materialized to press the flesh before a midnight screening of his film. “Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!’’ chanted the throngs, waving their cellphones and jockeying for a chance to take a picture with the man responsible for what many believe is the worst movie ever made.

“It’s so bad, it’s awesome,’’ said Laurie Grunin, 28, an illustrator from Easton and the first person in a line that stretched around the building.

Since it was first shown a year ago here and in cities across the country — “The Room’’ has become an interactive cult sensation in the mold of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’’ Fans arrive armed with plastic spoons to hurl at the screen whenever a framed photo of plastic cutlery appears in the film, which it frequently and mysteriously does. They shout choice bits of dialogue in unison, loudly insult the movie’s many plot holes and inconsistencies, and carry bouquets in tribute to a well-loved flower shop scene. Many of them returned en masse last night, when the Coolidge Corner Theatre screened “The Room’’ for the 24th time.

“I discovered the film about a month ago, and I’ve seen it roughly once a day ever since on DVD,’’ said Neil Malek, 31, a software developer who traveled to Brookline from Vermont to see the film on the big screen. He was wearing a frizzy, ink-black wig inspired by Wiseau’s coif. “It’s more a state of mind than a movie.’’

Jesse Hassinger, the theater’s program manager, says the movie’s appeal cannot be quantified — and is good for the bottom line. “It’s been a cash cow, to put it bluntly,’’ Hassinger says. “I think a lot of it has to do with the mystique around the film, which Tommy perpetuates. You see it for the first time and you’re like, ‘What am I watching?’ It either gets into your system or it doesn’t.’’

“The Room’’ is set in San Francisco and chronicles a love triangle involving a banker named Johnny (played by Wiseau), his friend Mark, and Johnny’s fiancée Lisa, who is having laughably bad sex with both men. Wiseau, an eccentric and often incomprehensible man of unclear provenance and even murkier artistic intentions, financed the $6 million film himself, partly with money he made importing leather jackets from Korea — or so he suggested in an Entertainment Weekly interview a few years ago. Wiseau has been opaque if not downright secretive about funding, and most everything else.

“The Room’’ opened at a handful of theaters in Los Angeles in 2003 to roundly bad reviews and made less than $2,000 during its initial theatrical run. But a handful of enchanted moviegoers, among them some young tastemakers in Hollywood, launched a word-of-mouth campaign, and theaters began to fill. Midnight screenings — many of which Wiseau would attend — started in Los Angeles, and a DVD of the film was released in 2005. Soon “The Room’’ had amassed a corps of rabid and vocal aficionados in the comedy world, including Paul Rudd, David Cross, and Jonah Hill, and the phenomenon spread nationwide. Recently “The Room’’ was anointed “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies’’ by a film studies professor at St. Cloud State University.

Of the film’s dubious fame, Wiseau told the Globe he considers it “a very positive thing.’’

“If Hollywood and the media don’t really give me credit, so be it,’’ he said. “I don’t care to be honest with you, as long as I have my fans right now, which is a good thing. I have a hundred thousand of them.’’

Boston audiences eagerly participate in the lovefest. At a Q&A preceding the screening, devotees who lined up at the microphone were familiar with not only the details of the movie but also its auteur’s quirks, among them: claiming Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando as kindred spirits, his insistence since the film’s ascent into the bad-art pantheon that he set out to make a black comedy and not a hopelessly amateurish drama, and caginess about his background.

“How many languages do you speak?’’ one fan asked.

“You are a very tricky person,’’ Wiseau replied in a heavy Schwarzenegger-like accent. “But I would tell you the truth. I speak three languages, and I am an American, and we’ll leave it that way. Let me give you a little advice, sweetie. Try not to put people down. Because 99 percent you cannot win.’’

“Would you talk about who your favorite filmmakers are?’’ asked another fan.

“First of all, nobody influenced me, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t want to repeat myself. Your question is a stupid question. Why is this stupid? Poor guy, don’t cry. Tennessee Williams. Bottom line: I influence myself.’’

Other questions ran the gamut from queries about Wiseau’s favorite pickup lines to whether he was going to make a musical version of “The Room.’’ His answers were a bizarre mix of game, confrontational, and abstruse, which seemed to be precisely what the rowdy audience wanted. It felt more like a frat party than a film screening at a venerable old movie house, and that’s good news for the Coolidge.

“We don’t necessarily have the big blockbuster films that the Fenway or the Common show to entice the college crowd, but ‘The Room’ isn’t playing anywhere else,’’ Hassinger says. “Even people who hate it come to see it. Quite honestly I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. But it gets a crowd we don’t usually see into the theater.’’

Globe correspondent Taylor Adams contributed to this story. Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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