Misery Train

Beautifully moody, Lonesome Jim is just what you'd expect from Steve Buscemi

Apr 19, 2006 at 4:00 am
At the opening of Lonesome Jim, a terrific new film directed by Steve Buscemi, a country song plays behind scenes of small-town desolation. "Good times'r comin'," it promises, in the movie's first joke. Nothing about these initial scenes — not the stark Midwestern landscape, not the sole figure running with luggage and not the vacant look on his face — augurs anything but misery. Indeed, misery is this film's subject, along with anger, depression and despair. Get ready for the good times.

Ah, but they are good — for us. Lonesome Jim is exactly the kind of film you would expect from Steve Buscemi, the beloved, bug-eyed weirdo who has graced so many indie treasures. Bleak, minimal, bone-dry and hilarious, it creates a rich and layered world from deft strokes of dialogue and action. There isn't a whiff of false sentiment, nor an extra word or phrase. Instead, we get a deep knowingness, a keen intelligence and an exhilarating trust in the audience. No doubt these gifts come directly from Buscemi, and from the film's writer, James C. Strouse, who has a way with silence. Together, they make a generous pair.

Within the first ten minutes of Lonesome Jim, we understand the major players: Jim (Casey Affleck), a hollow twentysomething returning home to Indiana after a stint in New York; Tim (Kevin Corrigan), his divorced and depressed brother; Sally (Mary Kay Place), their relentlessly optimistic mother; and Don (Seymour Cassel), their insensitive father. The film takes its time in telling us why Jim has returned home, but it makes quick work of showing us just what greets him when he arrives. In a word: dysfunction.

Just as Jim is getting his bearings, determining which of the three bars in town he can stand to get drunk in, his brother has a massive car accident. "What hit him?" Jim asks his mother when he reaches the hospital waiting room. "A tree," she wails. Tim's in a coma, and Jim has to step up, coaching his nieces' basketball team and working in his mother's factory, helping manufacture ladders. (This detail, perfect in its bittersweet amalgam of optimism and futility, is typical of the film.) At the bar and later at the hospital, Jim meets Anika (Liv Tyler), a sweet nurse with a precocious son, and they begin a jerky and halting dance toward romance.

Suddenly slotted into a life he'd left, Jim is lost. "I just don't know what I'm doin' here. On Earth. In this life," he tells his brother, who's too mired in his own misery to care. When Anika asks Jim what's wrong, he answers, "Chronic despair." But even as its protagonist broods and stagnates, never smiling, never getting out from under a greasy mop of hair, the film knows where it's going. In fact, Lonesome Jim is so rich, so patiently loaded in every moment, that it invites repeated viewings.

This bounty of implication must have been what Jim Jarmusch was shooting for with Broken Flowers, but that movie hardened into a nihilistic chill, whereas Buscemi keeps Jim meaningful and just urgent enough, warming the ice with the women. A hopeless enabler, Jim's mother Sally makes the best of every situation: coma, prison, whatever. Chipper, blond and codependent, she gives and gives to men so selfish that they have no compunction about accepting blood from a wound. Hers is the gooiest brand of denial, the kind that comes with soft hugs and homemade pies.

Liv Tyler, on the other hand, is a problem. It's not her fault; Anika is written too simply — too ethereal an angel — to feel real. It's hard to buy her savior shtick, especially since she's a single mother with a useless baby daddy. Surely she's had enough of men who can't even buy their own beer? Lonesome Jim's only insincere notes come from her, as when she offers an opinion of Hemingway: "I think he had a boner for what he did, you know?" Well, and her son Ben (Jack Rovello) delivers a couple of clunkers too. He's just too cute for school.

If the cast list is any indication, Buscemi and Strouse kept their film close to home. There's another Buscemi and three additional Strouses on the roster, if in mostly minor roles. Then there's the fact that the writer's name is James — same as his protagonist. All of this feels homey and right; Lonesome Jim is a small, very personal film made, one senses, with respect for its actors, its audience and its art. It's about a depressive's depressive, a young man so cocooned in his numbness and angst that he can't see anyone or anything else. But the film, unlike its protagonist, is not myopic, not depressing or narcissistic. It sees widely and with an open heart.