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‘Living in Oblivion’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 11, 1995

All those movies starring Brad Pitt have been useful, it turns out. Now that we've watched the heartthrob hair-dude in his hits ("Interview With the Vampire"), semi-hits ("Legends of the Fall") and non-hits ("Johnny Suede"), we're perfectly prepped to appreciate Tom DiCillo's deliciously wicked, behind-the-scenes satire, "Living in Oblivion."

In "Oblivion," a well-known Hollywood actor called Chad Palomino (played magnificently by James LeGros) has agreed to appear in a low-budget feature in New York. The director of the movie, Nick (Steve Buscemi), is delighted. But he's not prepared for the problems that come his way, including every Murphy's Law variety of bad luck, an unpredictable, semi-professional crew, and an arrogant star, who slows up the production with asinine "artistic" suggestions.

DiCillo (who was the cinematographer for Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise") has stated that, officially, his movie is not about Pitt. So let us just note in passing that, when DiCillo (in real life) directed the Bradmeister in "Johnny Suede," a low-budget movie not unlike "Living in Oblivion," he experienced some, uh, personnel problems.

There's infinitely more to the movie than poetic payback, however. Set over one day, "Oblivion" is a delirious mixture of fantasy and reality, with director Nick and his leading lady, Nicole (Catherine Keener), separately experiencing nightmares about the shoot before the cameras really start rolling.

But whether we're in somebody's dream or actuality, disaster is the rule, not the exception. Boom microphones drop accidentally into the camera frame. There are inexplicable beeping sounds on the set. An actress (Rica Martens) forgets her lines. The smoke machine doesn't work.

When Chad shows up to play ego-tripping havoc with everyone, the under-the-surface secrets and bitternesses among cast and crew percolate. As we find out who is sleeping secretly with/ splitting up with/ has a secret crush on/ privately despises whom, each revelation is better than the last. "Oblivion" (like the films of Quentin Tarantino—who gets a satirical mention himself here) has a surrealistic, guilty-fun quality. It feels almost too good to be true.

Everyone in the cast is terrific, including Dermot Mulroney as Wolf, the beret-sporting cameraman who thinks he's a genius but can't seem to stop screwing up shots, and Wanda (Danielle Von Zerneck), a tough-talking assistant director who gets weak in the knees whenever Chad gets close.

Best of all is Buscemi, a wonderfully offbeat, edgy performer who has appeared in such independent films as "Mystery Train" and "Reservoir Dogs." He carries the emotional weight of the movie as his dream project faces impending doom, his red-rimmed, frog-like eyes threatening to burst with exasperation. LeGros is a narcissistic prima donna beyond compare. Trying to demonstrate that he's not above appearing in little, artistic projects like "Oblivion," he talks about his sellout work, including two upcoming Hollywood projects in which he'll play a rapist and a serial killer. But, he declares, expansively indicating the "Oblivion" set, "These are the kind of films I want to be doing." For sure, dude. — Desson Howe

LIVING IN OBLIVION (R) — Contains sexual situations, minor nudity and profanity. In black-and-white and color.

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