If Tommy Wiseau is Your Neighbor, It’s Time to Move
Written by Tim Nelson
In the early hours of Monday morning, March 16th, 2015, a much-anticipated cultural document was released onto the internet for streaming. It was the follow-up to a landmark release that stands up as perhaps the best of its era. That work’s technical execution and thematic elements sparked conversations about what the very capabilities of its medium. This new release spoke bluntly on the subjects of racism, drug abuse, and violence on close-knit communities.
It’s just too bad The Neighbors isn’t as good as To Pimp a Butterfly.
Let’s backtrack a little bit and explore what got us to this point first. Tommy Wiseau, whose source of income and national origin remain shrouded in mystery, wrote and directed The Room in 2003, casting acting class partner Greg Sestero alongside himself. Owing to a combination of promotional efforts and pure word of mouth, the film’s devil may care approach to pacing, instantly quotable dialogue and overall level of meta-quirkiness turned it from a simple failure into a cult classic. Almost a dozen years after its initial release, independent film houses across the country continue to host midnight screenings of The Room, complete with elaborate audience rituals ranging from spoon throwing and football tossing to drinking Wiseau’s character’s favorite drink, a combination of- somehow- vodka and scotch. In a way, watching this movie is like seeing Phish live. It’s often a communal activity, new facets and elements to appreciate emerge with every successive experience, and it probably makes more sense when drugs are involved.
Given James Franco and Seth Rogen’s plans to adapt Sestero’s behind-the-scenes memoir The Disaster Artist into a film of its own, the time feels right for Wiseau’s next project. With The Neighbors, Wiseau follows the management and residents of a dysfunctional apartment building in an attempt to emulate the art form of the American sitcom. Though one would think the world was begging for more of Tommy’s work, it didn’t appear that his new show was going to ever to see the light of day. Thankfully, Hulu stepped up and released a handful of episodes for digital streaming.
In each installment, we follow landlord Charlie (Wiseau) and the countless residents, who range from a chicken-owning senior citizen, to a psychopathic pothead, to a presumed member of the British royal family and of course, Ricky Rick (Wiseau, again). For some reason, all of these personalities go to Charlie in search of answers to a wide range of personal and philosophical questions that have little to do with building maintenance and upkeep.
Though some will watch The Neighbors with lofty expectations of The Room’s unique brand of awful hilarity, just know this: You will not laugh nearly as much as you think you will. You will want to walk away feeling like you’ve learned something, but the truth is that you probably didn’t. I’ve realized at this point in my life that there’s no joy in being a hater. I wanted you to enjoy this. I really did. It just can’t be done.
Given his plan to create “a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams” and access to several million dollars of his own money (sources unknown) for a budget, The Room is an absurdist masterpiece because it operates within the basic framework of what a film is while simultaneously breaking from pretty much every convention of filmmaking.
I’m far from the first person to provide this kind of analysis. If you’re the kind of wild card that doesn’t care about SPOILER ALERTs, the video below walks through a small list of what The Room does wrong:
The film’s humor comes from the contrast between its amateur qualities and its insistence that you take what’s happening on screen seriously. We understand that we’re watching a movie and that we’re supposed to empathize with the characters, but the technical and creative execution create a sense of irony that translates into humor.
Unfortunately for The Neighbors, the context of its creation (the fact that The Room succeeded because it failed so miserably) coupled with low-budget production erases any possibility of earned or unearned laughs. Instead of entering the underwear business, perhaps Wiseau should have reinvested any earnings from The Room’s worldwide screenings back into the his latest project. The Neighbors looks and feels like it was shot for a fraction of the cost of its feature length counterpart, and the absence of any production values ruins the illusion of hypothetical “quality” necessary for a B movie/TV show (of which The Neighbors may be the only real example) to succeed. This comes through in the complete reliance on (possibly interchangeable) interior shots filmed on what might be a budget San Fernando Valley porn set. It’s also not always clear if the camera is mounted on a tripod (or any stabilizing rig, really), and the audio bleeds through on a number of occasions when Wiseau’s characters are at their most “animated”. Because we can’t trick ourselves into thinking that The Neighbors as a mainstream television show, we’re forced to view it through the lens of pornography: exploitative, poorly constructed, and lacking in any real emotion or passion. You are streaming it on the internet after all..
From a narrative standpoint, the absence of any cohesive story arcs means that we can’t even enjoy how poorly the show’s characters emote. In the absence of any understanding about what’s at stake (or even why any of this is happening), all attempts to portray the kind of big emotions Wiseau relies on are more irritating than ironic. I couldn’t comprehend why Cici’s chicken meant so much to her, so the only plausible explanation I could attribute to her behavior was drug addiction.
Similarly, the inability to understand the ties that bind these neighbors to each other also adds to our confusion. Throughout The Room, we were repeatedly assured that Mark was Johnny’s “best friend” and that Lisa was his “future wife”. There’s no such exposition in The Neighbors beyond the idea that everyone wants to bang each other. Combining this incestuousness with the idea of landlord-as-life-coach and the absence of any exterior scenes forces us to wonder whether this tv show is set in a realized version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon rather than an apartment complex.
Perhaps more cynically, The Neighbors also misses the (oh hi) mark because its intentions could never be as pure. Sometimes the mere knowledge of what you’ve accomplished leads us to make incorrect assumptions about what got you there in the first place. The surprising, logic-defying success of The Room liley corrupted Wiseau’s “vision” by validating all of the ridiculous beliefs he’s held about himself. It was like reminding a rookie pitcher that he’s got a perfect game going right before he goes to take the mound in the 9th inning. To Tommy Wiseau, this means doubling down on passion (read: volume) from his characters, threats of violence, and most importantly, Tommy Wiseau. All of these ideas are fine in the abstract, but the problem lies in their aimless execution. That’s why we see a stoner prone to unprompted outbursts of rage, a bizarre girl-on-girl bare knuckled brawl rooted in homophobia, and a scene where BOTH of Tommy Wiseau’s characters interact with each other solely for the sake of creating additional continuity errors. It’s as if everything was thrown onto the canvas with no sense of what it all adds up to. It’s important to remember that, Jackson Pollock did everything with complete control.
The Neighbors still exudes some of the qualities that made The Room laughable and likeable, but none of them map onto what we could charitably consider to be its plot or fit neatly into concise tangents (like Denny’s drug problems or Claudette’s definite breast cancer) like they did the last time around. Instead, it’s little things like the fact that Tim has both Cowboys and R*dskins fatheads in his apartment. Or the fact that multiple residents of the building view ice cream as a panacea for all sorts of physical, mental and spiritual maladies for which they really ought to seek a professional opinion. Moments like these serve as easter eggs, but it isn’t worth frolicking through a field of broken glass to hunt for them.
For those who are seriously dedicated in their futile attempts to “understand” what it is that makes Tommy Wiseau tick, The Neighbors- unfortunately- is required viewing. But unless you’ve attended a screening of the film in character or initiated some Johnny-Lisa roleplay, save yourself two hours and watch something meaningful, like whatever those mob wives are up to.