Steve Buscemi’s 1996 film Trees Lounge has to be the most gravely unheralded movie of the ‘90s. In an age where everyone carps and bitches that there are no John Cassavetes-style character pieces anymore, Buscemi delivered one, in his directorial debut no less, with the kind of piquant observation you rarely got in an independent movie era where Clerks is heralded as some kind of genius. It felt small, yet was truly outsized in its scope, and its silences were as defining as any of its sharp, well-studied dialogue. Buscemi’s third feature, the well-meaning but fresh as month-old sourdough bread Lonesome Jim, simply feels small.
It’s kind of a shame that this DV feature had to be released so soon after Cameron Crowe’s unspeakable, unclean Elizabethtown, because at times the two movies are interchangeable. Both center on young, twentysomething metropolitan failures trudging back to their smalltown life left behind to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. And both have their hero fall for an impossibly hot girl who unconditionally gives them love and affection, even when they haven’t warranted it. The good news is that, in this case, those roles are played by the appealing Casey Affleck (the Affleck who actually can act) and Liv Tyler, whose soft-pedaling approach to these roles makes them more human than Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst’s unctuous head-snapping routines.
Smalltown life is only mildly rendered as buffoonery here, with the requisite colorful townfolk one would expect from such a film. But where Buscemi was once fearless in depicting the slippery cores of his characters, Lonesome Jim is too tentative, possibly because of James C. Strouse’s meandering screenplay. The writer is never assured enough to suggest there is more than meets the eye, though Buscemi, as a director, does try. In one nice little scene early on, Affleck and Tyler discuss his job history, which includes a stint at Applebee’s. “I love Applebee’s!” is Tyler’s gushing response, yet through the actress’s sweet delivery and Buscemi’s non-judgmental handling, the line is truly felt, not a punchline for our protagonist’s disdain. If only the film had more insightful nuggets like this, as it gets progressively less believable as it goes along, especially in a foolish subplot involving Affleck’s mother (Mary Kay
Place, doing her usual thing) going to jail on a drug dealing charge perpetuated by the family’s disgusting, amoral Uncle Evil (Buscemi regular Mark Boone Junior).
Another product of the woefully inadequate InDigEnt company, who have almost never turned out an agreeable movie, Lonesome Jim feels as if it’s from an earlier time and not in a good way. Filmed in the company’s standard, ugly digital format, with virtually no scene utilizing the invention in any eventful manner, it plays like the type of film we’ve moved on from. And now that features shot digitally are as crafty and inventive as any celluloid dream that Terrence Malick or Steven Spielberg could have, Lonesome Jim finds itself in, well, pretty lonesome company.