Friday, April 14, 2006
As an actor, Steve Buscemi brings any character he plays to vivid life. Whether the role is large or small, he always makes a distinct mark on any film he's in. As a director, he's been drawn to the kind of characters that he has sometimes played, characters that live somewhat on the fringes of society. But as a director, he's left a less distinct mark on the films he's made. InLonesome Jim
, the main character is a failed writer who reluctantly returns to his small hometown after having lived briefly in New York.
Jim (Casey Affleck) went to New York hoping to become a writer. Instead he ended up working in Applebee's and eventually found the big city a little too expensive to live in. When he arrives home just before Christmas, he's welcomed back by his ever-cheerful mom Sally (Mary Kay Place). His older brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan) and his dad Don (Seymour Cassel) seem less enthused. And if the truth were told, Jim's not too enthusiastic about being home either. But he finds some solace in the fact that his brother's life seems even worse than his own. Tim's divorced, still lives at home and coaches his daughters' basketball team that has never scored a single point. In evaluating their two lives, Jim concludes: 'If I were you I couldn't go on. Look how far away you are from what you wanted to be' I'm a f'k-up, but you're a tragedy.' This prompts Tim to drive his car into a tree. He ends up in a coma, which prompts Don to pressure Jim into staying around and helping out at the family factory and taking over Tim's coaching duties. Feeling guilt, Jim agrees. But his willingness to stay also has something to do with having met the pretty and optimistic Anika (Liv Tyler). She's a pediatric nurse and a single mom with a son, and against all odds she takes a liking to Jim. Now Jim has a dilemma, because he hates the idea of being back home but he doesn't want to leave Anika.
Lonesome Jim doesn't advance Buscemi career as a director. It's a film that has some wonderfully observant moments and elicits some fine performances, but it lacks resonance and cinematic flair. Buscemi shoots on digital video and the 35mm blow up looks grainy and mushy. That may reflect the character's depressed demeanor but it grows tiresome to look at. Buscemi also chooses to use a very shaky handheld camera in the opening scenes. Again the choice seems designed to reflect Jim's emotional state, this time his nervousness and discomfort at returning home. But the choice proves more a distraction than a successful stylistic invention.
There are also moments when the film could have moved beyond its darkly comic intentions to find some real depth of character, but it doesn't. In one scene, Mom asks Jim, 'What did we do to make you kids so unhappy.' His unthinking reply is that 'maybe some people shouldn't be parents.' The character Jim and the director Buscemi, both deliver the line with a callousness that belittles Mary Kay Place's Mom. The scene comes after Jim has stolen money out of his mom's purse, forced her to walk to the market while he takes her car, and generally dismissed all her efforts to make him feel welcome. Sure his mom can be annoying (as when she pops in the bathroom as he's taking a bath and is oblivious to his obvious embarrassment) but she's also good-hearted. That scene between her and Jim should have had more emotional weight so the characters could move beyond just being a humorous character type.
James C Strouse's script and Casey Affleck's deadpan delivery often combine for maximum comic effect. When Anika asks Jim why he came home, the simple answer is: 'I sort of came home to have a nervous breakdown but my brother beat me to it.' That's efficient, funny dialogue. But Strouse is less good at filling in the details of his characters' lives. Having Jim be a failed writer is never embellished and never comes across as fully believable. He has posters of suicidal writers (Hemingway, Plath, etc.) on his bedroom wall but we never get an inkling of what he wanted to write about and if he was even serious about being a writer.
Films made by actors who have turned to directing, usually boast strong performance. In the case of Lonesome Jim , the performers mine some comedy from the material but they all seem low key. Even Mary Kay Place's cheery perkiness has a certain subdued quality. The result is a film in which the performances share a similar drab quality as the visual style, and Jim's depressed character ends up blurring into the background rather than popping out in bold relief to the other characters.
Lonesome Jim (rated R for language and some sexual content) has a quirky appeal and finds humor in the discontent of its main character. But it's a slight work that might not have even received a release if it weren't for indie darling Steve Buscemi helming the project. -----