Small talk, many argue, is the worst—a tedious practice that makes personal encounters shallow. In January, an actuary named Tim Boomer wrote a Modern Love column in The New York Times that waxed lyrical about the joyful possibilities of abandoning the custom altogether. Others disagree: Slate’s Ruth Graham argued in February that conversational pleasantries aren’t only necessary, but can also be enjoyable and quite revealing.
Whatever side of the debate you fall on, it’s difficult to ignore the uniquely American dimensions of small talk. In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how citizens of the young country could talk so much without really saying anything. Last week, Karan Mahajan wrote in The New Yorker about how it took him a decade to master the kind of culturally mandated casual friendliness that Americans expect in places like shops or restaurants. And as anyone who’s worked in the U.S. knows, office chit-chat is an unavoidable part of professional life.
It’s no surprise then, that small-talk culture has been thoroughly depicted in American motion pictures—particularly in cult movies written and directed by foreign filmmakers. Works such as The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, and Samurai are regular entries on lists of the best bad movies ever made, thanks in part to their logic-defying plots, risible acting, terrible scripts, and enthusiastic fan bases. But much of their subtler charm comes from how they capture—in bizarre, messy fashion—the contradictory nature of American small talk as a phenomenon that’s at once gloriously mundane and necessary to human connection.
You could dismiss the peculiar dialogue of these movies as a direct consequence of the filmmakers’ inexperience with the English language or screenwriting itself. But plenty of works exist to prove that being a native speaker or veteran writer isn’t an obstacle to bad writing. The appeal of these particular B-movies, rather, lies in the filmmakers’ strenuous efforts to overcome not just a linguistic barrier, but also a fundamentally cultural one. In daily American life, small talk is at best a mindless, learned habit; at worst, it’s evidence of a vapid society. But filtered through an outsider perspective, this social nicety—intended to be, well, nice and unobtrusive—becomes something horrible, conspicuous, and often hilarious.
Perhaps no film better embodies this idea than the 2003 monstrosity-come-masterpiece The Room, most simply described as a romantic drama about a love triangle. The film’s writer, director, producer, and star, Tommy Wiseau, is notoriously secretive about his nationality (he’s likely of Eastern European stock), but he’s notoriously un-secretive about his affection for America. According to the book The Disaster Artist, the director imposed a five-minute moment of silence on the Room set after the 9/11 attacks, before going on an expletive-filled rant about Osama bin Laden and leading a chant of “USA! USA!” In explaining to his Room co-star Greg Sestero why he celebrated Thanksgiving Month instead of Thanksgiving Day (by eating turkey for all 30 days of November), Wiseau said, “We live in America. Anything is possible. I love living American life.”
It’s reasonable, then, to think that Wiseau’s love of all things America would also extend to the nuances of American conversation, including small talk. The Room features plenty of idle chatter, the dialogue a strange mix of stilted and casual, vanilla and crude. Take one memorable (and frequently quoted) exchange between Wiseau’s character, Johnny, and Sestero’s character, Mark, Johnny’s best friend:
Mark: How was work today?
Johnny: Oh, pretty good. We got a new client, and the bank will make a lot of money.
Mark: What client?
Johnny: I cannot tell you; it’s confidential.
Mark: Aw, come on. Why not?
Johnny: No, I can’t. Anyway, how’s your sex life?
Mark: I can’t talk about it.
Johnny: Why not? Oh god, I have to run.
Johnny: Yeah, I’m sorry.
The entire conversation takes place in under a minute, in the middle of the day, at a coffee shop. What’s more, shortly after ordering their drinks and sitting down at a table, Johnny abruptly leaves with no explanation. Where an American filmmaker might not think to include such an apparently pointless discussion (the scene adds nothing to the plot), Wiseau seems to think the scene lends everyday realism to the movie. The baffling dialogue is what fans tend to mock (Anyway, how’s your sex life?). But the exchange crucially understands the comforting ritualism of small talk between friends, as well as the utter dispensability of such moments—which makes the film endearing despite its flaws.
There are countless other awkward scenes like this that at first feel like unnecessary padding, but that serve to flesh out the portrait of a typically “American” man and his group of friends. At one point, Johnny goes into a flower shop to buy roses for his fiancee, Lisa, and has a rushed exchange with the owner that feels like a list of non-sequiturs (“Can I have a dozen red roses please?” “Oh, hi, Johnny. I didn’t know it was you. Here you go.” “That’s me!” … “You’re my favorite customer!”). The brief encounter is usually laughed off as nonsense, but it quietly reinforces the idea that trivial banter acts as a social glue—an idea that an American writer might take for granted or over-intellectualize, but that Wiseau, as a foreign filmmaker, presents quite plainly.
Sometimes in The Room, lighthearted small talk veers uncomfortably into serious subject matter, even if the easy tone persists. Like in the scene where Lisa’s mom, Claudette, shares some bad news: “I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer,” Claudette says, as though reporting that it’s definitely going to rain on Saturday. “Thanks for paying for my tuition,” Johnny’s college-aged ward, Denny, tells him offhandedly in another scene, as if graciously thanking a waiter for bringing a drink refill. Such lines brand themselves in the minds of viewers, in part because of how they violate the unspoken rules that govern polite conversation. Rather than humanizing the film’s characters as intended, they come off as dissonant and eerie. At times, in its quest for authenticity, The Room spectacularly misses the mark and falls right into the uncanny valley.
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Birdemic: Shock and Terror, too, has some profound insight to share on chit-chat culture. The 2010 film, written and directed by James Nguyen, a Vietnamese filmmaker, blends romance and horror with a pro-environmentalist message to tell the story of a young couple in Silicon Valley who have to fight to survive after birds start murdering humans. The movie leans heavily on American Dream idealism, with its protagonist Rod going from software engineer to millionaire overnight after his company is acquired for “a billion dollars.” It also contains some of the most cringeworthy American-style small talk ever committed to celluloid, mostly taking place between Rod and his love interest, Nathalie. Like the following phone conversation:
Nathalie: Who is this?
Rod: It’s Rod.
Nathalie: Oh, the guy from the restaurant! What’s up?
Rod: Hey, it was nice running into you at Half Moon Bay.
Nathalie: Yeah, it was nice meeting you.
Rod: So. How’s your day?
Nathalie: My day’s going well. How’s yours?
Rod: Great. I made a big sale today.
Nathalie: Good! Fantastic!
Nathalie: I, uh, closed a big job offer today with Victoria’s Secret.
Rod: Wow, congratulations. I think you’ll look great in those lingerie.
It’s precisely the kind of conversation Boomer railed against in his Modern Love column—“dull droning” that people see as a prerequisite for true intimacy. The same goes for a later scene when Nathalie and Rod are on a date at a Chinese restaurant, and she asks him what he does for fun. “Watch football,” he replies. “Especially the 49ers. Also part-time Eagles fan. And a little exercise. Tennis. How about you?” The same goes, yet again, for when Rod meets Nathalie’s mom for the first time. “I really like retirement,” she tells him pleasantly. “I like to travel. I like to cruise. And I enjoy watching television.”
On screen, these scenes are boring and repetitive—Ugh, who cares? is a common response. They also smack of unbelievability, at least to viewers used to seeing more artfully scripted interactions. But the truth is, most pop culture imbues informal chatter with far more dignity (and entertainment-value) than the average person is likely to experience in real life. Like Wiseau, Nguyen seems invested in conveying how all-American his characters are. Look how normal and relatable they are! he seems to be saying. And he’s right. On Mad Men, that pinnacle of TV writing, every scene is lousy with gems (like Hollis the elevator operator saying, “Every job has its ups and downs”). But Nguyen’s relative lack of pretense—awful as the cinematic result is—is what helped make Birdemic a classic in its own right.
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Slightly less of an obvious fit into this pattern is the 1991 cult hit Samurai Cop. Written and directed by the late Iranian filmmaker Amir Shervan, the movie blends procedural and martial-arts genres, and stars Joe Marshall as a man trained to fight by “the masters in Japan,” brought to Los Angeles to help the police bring down a Japanese drug gang. The film expresses a preoccupation with American ideals (“This is America, land of freedom and law,” the gang leader declares at one point, while his lawyer threatens to sue the police for harassment), which suggests Shervan’s interest in broadly capturing cultural nuances.
Samurai Cop features much less aimless dialogue than The Room or Birdemic, but most of the film’s small talk feels like a vehicle for flirting or casual racism. “What’s an All-American girl like you doing with a geek like this?” Joe asks an attractive blonde sitting next to the Japanese gang leader in one scene. Later, he shows up at her office unannounced and after some empty chatter confesses, “Let’s just say I think you’re very pretty. Jeez, where are my manners. I haven’t even introduced myself.” Not much earlier in the film, Joe indulges some lighthearted sexual banter with a nurse who places her hand down his pants.
With such exchanges, the film seems to be innocently aiming for humor or romance, but ends up showing how small talk that relies solely on first impressions can be inappropriate or insensitive. After confronting the drug cartel at a restaurant, Joe and his partner Frank stop a flamboyant, heavily accented, Costa Rican waiter and try to get information out of him by indulging in a quick chat. He tells them his first name (“Alfonso Rafael Federico Sebastian”), but before he can say his last name, Joe gets annoyed and rushes Frank out. “Aw come on, man,” Joe tells Frank. “His last name would’ve made a book.” Polite conversation with strangers can, of course, be irritating, but Samurai Cop captures the uglier traits that can surface from forced interaction. The film captures the ways in which not everyone in America is deemed equally worthy of routine civility—in other words, pretty white women can generally expect more leeway than a gay Latino man.
It’s always odd discovering a level of depth in works that, quality-wise, don’t invite generous interpretation. The Room, Birdemic, and Samurai Cop aren’t so much exhaustive ethnographic studies of the average American as they inadvertent comedies of manners. Their ridiculousness might render our own habits that much more ridiculous (I think you’ll look great in those lingerie)—but, occasionally, they can make them seem more sympathetic.
Writers and movie fans have spent plenty of time unpacking all the ways “so bad they’re good” films endure, at least among a subset of cultural consumers, and one reason that continually crops up is: earnestness. It’s an especially apt reason when it comes to these B-movies: Their odd charm lies in how sincerely they try to depict a tradition held up as the apex of insincerity. Movies, TV, and literature have long excoriated and celebrated small talk as an American institution, but in the hands of a foreign filmmaker, such portrayals don’t feel mean-spirited or remotely self-aware. Ironically, Nguyen, Wiseau, and Shervan’s cultural remove brought them—and by extension their audiences—closer to reality. However distorted the mirror, or scornful the laughter, the image they reflected back felt nothing short of genuine.
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