One in a while when actor Steve Buscemi is not playing quirky or unconventional characters, he directs a film. This time he gives us Lonesome Jim, a film so unlike his last directorial effort six years ago of the upbeat, optimistic Animal Factory. Lonesome aptly describes the film as much as its title protagonist, as well as the majority of its characters and overall mood. You think a film with a boy-meets-girl story would give brighten up eventually. Not Lonesome. It trudges through perpetual downers and self-pity, occasionally turns slightly towards the light but never really uplifts itself towards it.
How lonesome is Lonesome, let me describe the ways. We begin with Jim (Casey Affleck) as he comes home in
Jim’s life of self-gloom and utter bleakness gets a little sunshine (so one hopes) through friendship with local nurse Anika (Liv Tyler) and her son Ben (Jack Rovello). Something that vaguely passes for romance develops between Anika and Jim. You wonder if it is at all serious between Jim’s detached conversations, Anika’s casual dismissals of any romantic notions despite their frequent sexual activities, and his despondent look when Anika spends more time caring for the bed-ridden Tim.
Lonesome shares some kinship with last year’s Junebug in terms of dysfunctional family dynamics and a protagonist reluctant in coming home to meet them. However, Junebug has a persistent ray of sunshine (through Amy Adams in an Oscar-nominated role as the perky expectant daughter-in-law Ashley) while Lonesome has no more than faint glimmers. The latter’s humor is more dark and…for lack of better word…often pathetic. It is at times welcoming, especially when Uncle Evil appears with another crazy antic. But most other times it is repeated milkings of the same mantra – particularly mocking Jim and Tim’s plights, Sally’s eccentric motherliness, and their associative effects on everyone around them. The film’s gritty video quality, non-stationary shots and low-key lighting give a home video look and etch deeply the ‘lonesome’ mood.
A few of the character developments looks implausible. I won’t try to guess how Sally and Don, who are opposite as night and day, hook up. Maybe it is the attraction of (extreme) opposites, or she sees something in him that no one else does – he does not connect with either of his sons. How Anika and Jim bonded is another mystery. Given his frame of mind (and spirit) as depicted in the film, and unless Anika has a thing for manic-depressive guys, it’s hard to believe that they can bond so easily…and have sex immediately afterwards. For that matter, a basketball team with a perpetual losing streak can still continue to function – with the kids’ parents blessing – despite an obviously incompetent coach in Tim, and Jim faring no better. Rural Indiana cannot be that rundown. Can it?
Anika is the most redeeming character, neither subjected to the ‘doom and gloom’ motif embodied by Tim and Jim, nor an object of mockery or superficial merriment. Her level-headedness and down-to-Earth realism, affecting on yet unaffected by Jim, provides the film’s only bright moments. She is wonderfully brought to life by Liv Tyler, whose impressionistic optimism compliments very well to the more expressionistic gloom by Affleck as Jim. Affleck proves to be a solid lead, more so than his famous but less-gifted brother. His delivery does sound forced at times, but that could be attributed to the way Jim is supposed to talk. Solid supporting roles are also provided by Place and Cassel, the latter’s gruff exterior makes him a perfect casting choice. Sally is a ‘gray’ character, in that it is not clear if she is supposed to be taken seriously or be an object of humor. The filmmakers try to make her be both but ultimately she fails to endear.
It is hard to recommend a film that prides itself in perpetual gloominess and sad state of affairs, outside of Liv Tyler’s relatively warm presence. While Buscemi is a decent director, he seems to delight in the characters’ gloomy drama too much that it becomes a running gag throughout the film. Except for those of like minds, Lonesome is exactly how it will make you feel.
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