Having failed as a writer and—perhaps more grievously—as a dog walker in New York, lonesome Jim (Casey Affleck) slinks home to rural Indiana. There, Mom (Mary Kay Place), a peerless artist of the guilt trip, dotes oppressively; Dad (Seymour Cassel) radiates dour indifference; and older brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan), himself the divorced father of two young girls and the reluctant coach of their lousy basketball team, apparently already has called dibs on moping around the house.
Happy to be home, Jim? Um, not so much. “I think about ending it all as it is; I can’t imagine if I had your life,” he tells his brother. “I mean, look at how far away you are from everything you wanted to be.” This pep talk continues for a while, as Jim clarifies his position. “I’m a fuckup,” he says, “but you’re a goddamn tragedy.”
“Yeah,” Tim limply agrees, before promptly getting himself into a car accident and a coma. To this, Jim’s eventual response is impressively consistent: “I sorta came back to have a nervous breakdown, but the bastard beat me to it.”
Now is probably a good time to point out that this movie is a comedy. Lonesome Jim is the third feature directed by Steve Buscemi, who doesn’t appear in the film and has rightly decided he doesn’t need to. Of course, the ferrety, baggy-eyed Buscemi presence, so consistently a boon to those many and varied movie scenes it has graced (if that’s the word), is missed. But he’s here in spirit—which must explain why what amounts to another angsty, sparsely dramatized back-home-to-sort-things-out report actually approaches poignancy and singularity.
Much has been made of Buscemi’s quirkiness and his working-class cred as a performer, both of which are real enough, but his best artistic assets are the basic propensities for being sensible, good humored and humane. These are coming along nicely in his direction.
Dodging melodrama and condescension, Buscemi and his perfect cast try to pare down and burn off the hoariness inherent to a first-time script (by writer and cartoonist James C. Strouse, who is quite clearly a native of rural Indiana). Collective reticence helps conceal or mitigate clichés as Jim quickly meets a perfectly gorgeous and available girl, Anika (Liv Tyler); gets a little perspective from her wised-up kid; and warms to standing in as the coach of his nieces’ abominable team. Meanwhile, Jim’s uncle (Mark Boone Jr.), who calls himself Evil and runs a drug racket out of Jim’s parents’ ladder factory, takes a shine to the young man. Evil tries for an uneasy bond between them, with questions like, “Hey, would you open a checking account for me?”
Casey Affleck, wearing a paler shade of Ben Stiller’s coiled, put-upon incredulity, bears up well on a path well-trodden in other small, quiet movies by the likes of Timothy Hutton, Luke Wilson and Zach Braff and in larger, less-quiet movies by whomever Cameron Crowe prefers in a given month as his own fictionalized stand-in. Being an Affleck, Casey is more inclined to play attitude than intention, and even his restraint sometimes seems like a pose. But he’s also crafty and nonverbally urgent in a way that his wooden brother Ben never can manage, and his oblique commitment to the part seems like exactly what Buscemi was after.
What’s more, the story has the good sense to make Jim’s potential rescuer an experienced nurse. “There’s so many fun and cheery people in the world,” he tells her. “Don’t you think you’d be better off with one of them?” He wants a certain answer, of course, but not any responsibility.
Jim gets fussy about Anika’s expectations even as he’s jealous of the instinctive care she offers his recovering, bed-ridden brother. He makes a brave show of the shrine to suicidal writers in his own room but collapses into cravenness at the thought that Anika’s ex might beat him up. You’d think she’d offer to hook him up with some potent meds. But perhaps her best expression of mercy is not asking Jim to go into detail about his writing.
No real surprises here, but who’d want to see a movie about a depressive failure who returns to his bleak homestead and doesn’t score with Liv Tyler? If Jim’s stakes aren’t especially high, maybe it’s because on some level he’s aware of the consolation to be had from being the protagonist in a Steve Buscemi movie. Lonesome Jim is a frugal, decent picture, forgivable for lacking brilliance on account of not pretending any.