Wiseau’s First Film in 20 Years Is Caught In The Wake Of The Room
On April 2, I took a break from Qualing to attend the world (pre) premier of Tommy Wiseau’s Big Shark at Portland’s Cinema 21. Apologies to the English department, but I had no choice. Big Shark is the first film Wiseau has directed since his 2003 cult classic The Room, widely revered as “the worst movie of all time.” That’s a hell of an act for Big Shark to follow, and follow Big Shark does: at every turn, the film is either trying to rectify The Room’s failures or emulate its success.
If you’re not familiar, The Room is the quintessential so-bad-it’s-good film. It was created by nightmare auteur Tommy Wiseau, a man of unknown age, nationality, wealth, and sanity. The film has a dedicated following, with a culture of fun, rambunctious midnight screenings comparable to Rocky Horror Picture Show. Although Wiseau still repudiates criticism of his magnum opus, he has embraced the fandom. He even chose to hold the Big Shark premier in Portland because of Cinema 21’s history of hosting The Room screenings.
Big Shark, for better or for worse, is not The Room. Ostensibly, it’s a thriller/horror film about three decorated firefighters — Patrick (Tommy Wiseau), Tim, (Isaiah LaBorde), and Georgie (Mark Valeriano) — who must defeat a big shark terrorizing New Orleans. The trailer features a fast-paced boxing sequence and a sick slo-mo shot of the big shark pursuing its victims. This footage does not appear in the movie. Big Shark is neither thrilling nor horrifying. It never even crossed my mind to be afraid. The titular big shark is absent for the first forty minutes and only appears intermittently after that, surfing through the streets of New Orleans on a wave of knee-deep water it appears to control with its mind. The audience lost it every time the unfinished CGI behemoth materialized out of nowhere to plow through an innocent civilian, like they were Regina George and it was the bus.
Wiseau openly admitted that Big Shark is unfinished, though you could tell that just by looking at it. Big Shark isn’t really a movie; it’s a series of tepid ad-libbed scenes loosely tied together by the premise that there is a big shark hanging out somewhere off screen. Wiseau, among others, has alluded to the film’s “script,” and while there are lines that glimmer with the Wiseau Touch, most of the dialogue is improvised and the story is unfocused at best. Scenes just happen, without building to anything, sometimes repeating; at one point, a ponderous scene of two characters resolving to stop weeping over a dead friend is immediately followed by them visiting his grave and crying for another five minutes.
The movie goes like this: Patrick, Tim, and Georgie putter around New Orleans rambling about nothing for an hour. Eventually, they decide to deal with the big shark. They stick it with a tracker, follow it to its lair, and bait it with a dynamite-stuffed pig carcass which they’ve floated out on the water in an inflatable raft. After spending ten minutes setting up the dynamite they explode the shark and go home. Shitty dance party ending.
After the screening Wiseau held a Q&A, and I asked him what his creative vision was with Big Shark. He replied: “To make something different.” Indeed, many of Big Shark’s creative choices come off as direct reactions to criticism of The Room. The Room was shot on fake-looking sets, so Big Shark was shot on location. “It’s not set [sic], ha ha,” Wiseau remarked during the Q&A. “I’m laughing on media [sic]. I love media [sic], they’re very nice people, but sometimes they’re wrong.” So in Big Shark, Wiseau sets out to prove the media wrong. The Room is a boring drama with no plot, so Big Shark aims for high-stakes action/horror. The Room has corny music and bad ADR, so Big Shark has no score and uses only live sound. Critics said The Room has a terrible, wooden script? Then most of the dialogue in Big Shark is improvised.
Although Wiseau has listened to the criticism of The Room, he seems to be under the misapprehension that doing the opposite of what The Room did will automatically make his movie good. To be fair, there are some genuine improvements (particularly the location shooting). But the quality of the film’s live sound is inconsistent and often terrible; Wiseau refuses to use SFX, non-diegetic music, or even to overlay sound from one shot over another, resulting in numerous shots that ring with unnatural, ill-fitting silence. In the unlikely case that Big Shark has a sound editor, he needs to be replaced. The improvisation is more of a mixed bag. Ad-libbing makes for looser, more lively performances, and that energy even lifts up the dialogue that Wiseau did write. At its best, the improv is hilarious. At its worst, scenes drag out as the actors keep exchanging quips that, I assume, seemed funny during the shoot.
Insofar as Big Shark tries to fix The Room, it fails. Luckily for Wiseau, the premier was attended not by critics, but by fans of The Room who weren’t looking for improvement in the first place. These fans were the event’s target audience: otherwise, Wiseau would have no reason to bring Greg Sestero out on stage — an actor from The Room who, contrary to what you may find online, had minimal involvement with Big Shark— wearing the same denim jacket he wore in The Room. Big Shark caters to this audience. Consequently, sometimes you’re not laughing at Big Shark, but with it.
But it’s often unclear when you’re laughing with Big Shark, and when you’re not. There are a lot of intentional (and funny!) jokes, and a lot of blunders to ridicule, but the line between the two is a rorschach test for how much you respect Tommy Wiseau. You watch the characters use a stick of dynamite in a pig to blow up a shark and you think: surely, Tommy must know how absurd this is. The very title — Big Shark — has to be a self-aware jab at shark movies. But then again, Wiseau unironically called his first film The Room, and thought having a character off-handedly mention a cancer diagnosis was appropriate for a serious drama. But that was twenty years ago, so maybe he’s improved?
The question is especially pertinent whenever Big Shark echoes The Room, which it does often. At one point, Tim calls Wiseau’s character Patrick a chicken — an insult used frequently in The Room — and the audience reacted with vocal enthusiasm. Afterwards, Patrick commented, “Who are these people? Who are you?” as if he heard the crowd cheering and realized he was in a movie. This seems deliberate — on the other hand, the line, “Why are you two fighting? You love each other,” appears in Big Shark and The Room. It’s stiff, unfunny, and draws no audience reaction in either film. That strikes me not as a deliberate callback but as Wiseau being a hack fraud. Big Shark inherits The Room’s best idiosyncrasies— entertaining performances, scenic stock-footage loading screens, an inexplicable fixation on sports — but inherits its worst as well — the sluggish pace, the nonexistent plot, the misogyny. Yes, Big Shark is so-bad-it’s-good, but that still means it’s bad.
Worst of all: Big Shark, like The Room, is a 90 minute masturbation session for director/producer/writer/star Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau’s character is the film’s Cassandra, only proving everyone else wrong about the big shark once it’s too late. He and his pals all have model-hot girlfriends and spend all day drinking beer and partying. They’re universally revered as heroes for saving two children from a burning building, which, as firefighters, is their job. In fact, one of the movie’s first scenes is a drawn out sequence of the three leads accepting an award for their bravery as a full crowd gives them a standing ovation; crucially, this takes place in a movie theater.
I don’t hate Tommy Wiseau, but by all accounts the man is a pitiful narcissist fool. If Big Shark is about anything at all, it’s about his relationship with The Room. He yearns to defeat his critics; since he’s too arrogant to improve his craft, he obeys the letter of their criticism without bothering to understand the spirit, and therefore fails. Conversely, Wiseau thrives off the approval of the only people who have good things to say about his art: fans of The Room. Perhaps he understands his following well enough to intentionally give them the sequel to The Room they want. But I doubt that Wiseau is capable of the kind of self-reflection required to make great art on purpose. Instead, I suspect that he doesn’t fully grasp (or willfully ignores) that The Room’s fandom is ironic. Maybe having an audience that only cheers for things that suck has skewed Wiseau’s perception of what makes a movie good.
Whether or not Wiseau is in on the bit, his crew definitely was. The supporting cast gave delightful, hammy performances. The cinematographer got in some laugh-out-loud visual gags, not to mention genuinely beautiful shots (I sensed the influence of Wes Anderson, which is not a sentence I ever thought I’d write in association with Tommy Wiseau). The editor also had a strong sense for comedic timing. and their cutting was as unobtrusive and effective as it’s meant to be. I’d love to tell you who these people are, but since Wiseau is, again, a pitiful narcissist fool, Big Shark doesn’t have a credits sequence. During the Q&A, one of my friends asked Wiseau if he had any plans to credit the rest of his team and he testily replied, “We’ll consider what you’re saying and go onto next question [sic].” If a single member of the crew was part of a union I will eat my Big Shark t-shirt.
I don’t know precisely what Big Shark is trying to be. Whatever that is, the audience at Cinema 21 loved it. They laughed, shouted, and sang along, inventing jokes as they went, cheering at all the right parts. I’m sure Wiseau was pleased with the positive response and the level of audience participation. I’ve been pretty hard on it, but I do like Big Shark. I had a lot of fun at the premiere! The movie is undeniably entertaining — dare I say, camp. When you’re watching it, you don’t really care if it’s trying to be funny or failing to be serious — you’re too busy having a good time.
…but Big Shark isn’t The Room. And the audience at Cinema 21 wasn’t really there for Big Shark, were they? If they were there for Big Shark, they wouldn’t cheer for Greg Sestero when he came onstage wearing that denim jacket. Hell, I’ve spent so much time talking about The Room that I’ve barely touched upon the actual (very interesting) contents of Big Shark, which is unfortunate given that I’m one of about 1200 people who’s seen the film. In my defense, Big Shark only matters in relation to The Room. It’s not interesting enough on its own. It desperately wants to be The Room, just as much as it wants to destroy The Room. Naturally, it can do neither, and in the attempt it becomes a mere footnote to Wiseau’s magnum opus. Because The Room is a miraculous calamity, a 500-year flood, and it hits you in the chest with its sublime, vital, exquisite wretchedness every time you watch it. The Room is the worst movie of all time. Big Shark is a movie.
Big Shark will see isolated screenings in a smattering of theaters across the country this summer. It’s not clear when, if at all, it will receive a wide release.