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With: Casey Affleck, Liv Tyler, Mary Kay Place, Seymour Cassel, Kevin Corrigan, Jack Rovello, Rachel Strouse, Sarah Strouse, Mark Boone Junior
Written by: James C. Strouse
Directed by: Steve Buscemi
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and drug content
Running Time: 91
Date: 01/22/2005

Lonesome Jim (2006)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Messing Around with 'Jim'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Lonesome Jim on DVD (Region 0, PAL)

With his touching 1996 feature directorial debut Trees Lounge, about a borderline alcoholic and his vague attempts to put his life back together, Steve Buscemi captured a particular moment in time, a moment at which American cinema struggled to find some kind of identity of its own, and grasped at bits of the 1970s for that purpose.

Specifically, Buscemi tried to recapture that elusive, spontaneous magic that made the films of John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence, Love Streams) so great. And he actually came close.

After a decade that included more movies and TV shows, including a stint on "The Sopranos," Buscemi returns with Lonesome Jim, based on a script by James C. Strouse. And the Cassavetes touch seems farther away than ever.

Lonesome Jim concerns yet another scruffy twentysomething, Jim (Casey Affleck), who reluctantly returns home to Goshen, Indiana from his glamorous, independent life in New York City. Like most other twentysomethings who reluctantly return home, he's glum and depressed, perpetually unshaven and with artfully unkempt hair.

A failed writer, Jim immediately papers his room with photos of suicidally depressed authors, with a giant picture of Hemingway as the centerpiece.

His family life reflects his demeanor. His divorced older brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan) and his two daughters (Rachel and Sarah Strouse) live at home. Tim coaches a girls' basketball team that hasn't hit one game basket all season.

Jim's parents, Don (Seymour Cassel -- a staple in Cassavetes' films) and Sally (Mary Kay Place), run -- of all things -- a ladder factory. (Could this be a stab at symbolism? Everyone else is "going up" in the world except Jim and his family?) Jim's grungy uncle -- who insists on being called "Evil" (Mark Boone Junior) -- works there, too, with lots of breaks for stolen candy, drugs and hookers.

Improbably, Jim meets a beautiful nurse, Anika (Liv Tyler), his first night home and sleeps with her (quickly) on a hospital bed. Even more improbably, she continues flirting with him. It turns out she has a son, Ben (Jack Rovello), who -- still more improbably -- takes a shine to Jim.

Once the stage is set and the players are introduced, Buscemi tries to give Lonesome Jim a spontaneous feel by randomly jumping back and forth between events and conversations. But the supposed randomness takes on an artificial, movie quality -- precisely the thing that Cassavetes worked so hard to avoid.

In an attempt to snuff out his depressing life, brother Tim crashes his car into a tree, leaving Jim to take on coaching duties. Basketball practices occur haphazardly, whenever the mood calls for it, regardless of anyone's working schedule or any clock of reality.

And Jim's mom gets arrested because someone at the company (guess who) has been sending drugs through Fed Ex containers. Serendipitously, Jim's brief association with Evil provides a few all-too-convenient conflict elements for this plot strain.

Fortunately, Buscemi is an actor's actor, and he guides his capable cast through the mire. Tyler is too glamorous to entirely pull off playing a single working mom, and Anika has been written as too single-mindedly nice, but Tyler still gets in a few lovely moments, as when Anika brings a paper smile to pin over Hemingway's frowning mug.

Most will agree that Affleck collected all the family talent while his older brother got stuck with the looks, but Casey has thus far been a far more intuitive comedian than a melancholy lead.

Buscemi mostly scores with his supporting cast, and none succeeds more than Ms. Place as the mother who hides her own crushing disappointment and sadness beneath a thick layer of perk. It's a brilliant performance, one that peels back a new layer each time she appears onscreen; if there were special awards for great acting in mediocre movies, Ms. Place would deserve a trophy.

Lonesome Jim eventually ambles its way toward a brain-dead happy ending in which the thick depression suddenly evaporates. Cassavetes didn't care for such endings, nor did he care to take the easy route to get to them. His films were ruled by the basest emotions; people sometimes do horrible things, and life sometimes takes its own course.

The problem with being spontaneous is that you can't try to be spontaneous. Lonesome Jim is so ordered that even the most potentially "surprising" events unfold as if there were no other alternative. The potential for an organic life pulse has been organized and planned out of existence.

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