Movies

Bleak House on the Prairie

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

You can go home again.

But it sucks.

That's the argument of "Lonesome Jim," a Sundancey indie directed by the actor Steve Buscemi. The movie is set in somebody's dirtwater home town -- one of those bleak, sad burgs standing isolated on the prairie, with undistinguished architecture, crumbling infrastructure and second-tier fast-food joints. It's so homey and so towny and so cloying, grasping and mega-destructive to the spirit that you wonder that it didn't squish your delicate talent to atoms, and you knew you had to get out, and now here you are, back again. Aggggghhhhhhhhhhhhr.

Then comes that fine day when you cease to be a child and become an adult and instantaneously everyone seems to improve 1,000 percent.

Buscemi watches that process through the eyes, heart and over-stimulated glands of Jim (Casey Affleck), of the scruffy beard, the hangdog sullenness, the failed career (as a writer; his mistake -- he went to New York instead of the spare bedroom) and the lacerating self-loathing that is part and parcel of the rage he feels at his poor parents for being so utterly, totally clueless.

The crimes these people have committed are almost too numerous to name. Dad, for example, is one of those blustery go-getters who's had the audacity to found a small ladder company and earn a good living. A ladder company? Have you ever heard of such a thing? Good lord, it's full of dreary blue-collar men who work at lathes and tube-benders all day long and when they're done with the day's work, the only thing they have to show for it is . . . ladders!

Then there's Mom. Was a dimmer bulb ever put upon Earth? Mom is nice to everyone . To her, everything under the sun is cute . There is no homily, no bromide, no cliche, no sampler verse that does not pass her lips. She has no capacity to discriminate and promiscuously empathizes with all life forms, even her mangy brother, self-nicknamed "Evil." She's never heard of the giants -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Proust, Beckett -- whose stern visages still mark Jim's wall and whose approval is far more meaningful to him than that of poor Mom n' Pop.

No wonder Jim, 27, is such a wreck, and the funny part is, Jim would have to be considered the successful one. His poor brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), in the middle of a divorce with child-custody problems, a dead-end job (he's in charge of the second- and third-step department in the ladder factory) and the coach of a girl's rec center basketball team that has yet to score a single point, is so disconsolate that soon after Jim's arrival, he drives into a tree and takes a vacation in comaland, which is how Jim ends up taking over steps three and four and the team.

I happen to like movies set in real places, and this one is set in a place almost too real -- the actual Cromwell, Ind., where the writer, James C. Strouse, actually grew up. Oh, and that's his parents' ladder factory, by the way, and I'd bet it's also their nice split-level. So he went home again and somehow got Steve Buscemi to make a movie, and the movie's really about going home and suddenly figuring out something very important: You know, these are pretty decent people.

The script is adroit: It doesn't force the humor and it steadily keeps track of Jim's growing maturity. It flicks adroitly between his adventures as basketball coach (he keeps sneaking out for cigarette breaks), his adventures as ladies' man (with a single mom played nicely by Liv Tyler), his adventures in the factory with Evil (Mark Boone Junior), who turns out to be the town dope dealer. But mostly it's about the boy-man and his parents and how he goes from condescension to love. Buscemi has a nice eye: He could play the town like some Gothic ruin out of "Twin Peaks," but he sees it warmly. You don't feel him acting superior and going for cheap look-at-the-rubes jokes. He has a gift for evoking the textures of blue-collar life. Does anybody remember his superb 1996 film, called "Trees Lounge"? But his best gift may be for actors.

Affleck's interesting; he's as handsome as that brother of his, but he's got something Ben couldn't create on a dare: a subtext. He probably can't be a star in big movies because his drawback is a voice that sounds like a snivel drawn through a wet nasal passage into a whine. He's also diffident as well; he paws the earth, stammers awkwardly, has trouble with eye contact, is about as far from feature film idolatry as could be imagined. And yet in certain kinds of films -- this kind -- he's 100 percent authentic, whereas his brother would coarsen the thing toward nonsense.

The parents are played by pros so old that they manage to seem completely un-pro, and totally real. Seymour Cassel is Dad, and boy, does he seem like a certain gun-show type: hardy, square, square-headed, NRA lifetime member, without a doubt or a hesitation. Mary Kay Place, a sublime comic actor, is Mom, and what a sweet performance. Though she can do clever -- remember her cleverness in "The Big Chill" all those years ago, and on such with-it hipster TV tricks as "Forever Fernwood" and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" -- here she's heartbreakingly vulnerable. "What did we do," she asks at one sad moment, "to make you kids so unhappy?"

The answer is: nothing. The kids made themselves unhappy. And the kids have to learn to make themselves happy.

Lonesome Jim (91 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is R-rated for sexuality, drug use and profanity.


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