For most viewers, little in The Room bears even remote resemblance to real life. One of the film’s most cherished lines, judging by YouTube views, is when Mark exhorts a nosy friend to “leave your stupid comments in your pocket!” For Wiseau, however, this expression made some kind of strange sense. So much so, in fact, he “wasn’t going to let any of us move on until he had this ridiculous line of dialogue in the can,” [co-star Greg] Sestero writes. What else made sense? A scene with four men, each in tuxedos, tossing a football around while standing only a few feet apart. And, the idea that a stockbroker with a randy stay-home woman is the apex of American achievement. The Room may be a non-native’s laughable, even grotesque caricature of modern American life, but it’s an incredibly sincere one.
Given this context, it might be useful to think of Wiseau as something of an outsider artist. Outsider art—also known as visionary art, or art brut— “describes the work of untrained, self-taught people who make art,” says Charles Russell, author of the book Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught and Outsider Artists. Marginalized from society, or at least the art world, due to disability, isolation, or lack of artistic training, outsider artists “are basically following their own personal vision,” Russell says. The label has traditionally applied to painters and sculptors—Sarah Boxer gave an overview of the genre in a recent issue of The Atlantic—but it’s hard to see why it couldn’t also refer to Wiseau or any other thwarted, un-self-aware filmmaker.
The book reveals a lot about the chaotic film production but never cracks the enigma of Wiseau:
What we find out is that Tommy escaped a Soviet Bloc country, unnamed in the book, to Strasbourg, France, in the 1950s. He worked there for a while in a restaurant, eventually moved to Paris, and then on to the New Orleans area. He ended up in Chalmette, a town just east of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where he worked at a grocery store for an undisclosed period of time. A Greyhound bus brought him to San Francisco, where he supposedly built a successful street vending business, Street Fashions, selling yo-yos and pleather jackets. There’s little information about how he funded this business, let alone a multimillion-dollar film. Sestero and Bissell insinuate that Wiseau may have been affiliated with local mobsters in San Francisco, but there’s little concrete information to support that.