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‘Living in Oblivion’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 11, 1995

So you wanna make a movie? Well, first, you should see "Living in Oblivion," Tom DiCillo's savagely funny satire of the world of independent filmmaking. According to this writer-director—who started as a cinematographer and made his directorial debut two years ago with the laboriously hip "Johnny Suede"—the whole process is a nightmare. Or, to be more precise, a series of nightmares.

Like most films about filmmaking, "Living in Oblivion" deals with the obstacles—from greasy food and faulty equipment to childish crew members and egocentric stars—that stand in the way of a movie's getting made. And to give a more vivid impression of the experience, DiCillo not only takes us onto the set of his movie-within-a-movie, but into the minds of his characters as well.

As a result, it would be a mistake to take anything in this playful, ingenious film at face value. In a brilliantly sustained opening sequence, aspiring auteur Nick Reve (played with paranoid exuberance by Steve Buscemi) arrives on the set of his little movie, full of enthusiasm and ready to shoot the day's scene—an emotional confrontation between his heroine, Nicole (Catherine Keener), and her mother. Once filming begins, though, one foul-up follows another in a mounting crescendo of goofs.

Because of all the delays, his actors begin to get frustrated; it's a scream watching them fumble for their characters amid the chaos. With every retake, their concentration gets weaker and weaker—the one exception being the transcendent moment that takes places when, characteristically, the film's insecure cinematographer (a priceless Dermot Mulroney) is off throwing up because of bad milk in the morning coffee.

A lesser man than Nick might collapse from all the pressure, and he does consider shutting down the set. Moviemaking is just one compromise and disappointment after another, but Nick has got the bug. In the film's second section, his spirits are again flying high, this time over the arrival of Chad Palomino (James Le Gros), a hunky box office star who has agreed to work on the cheap.

Palomino is meant to be a star at the peak of his self-absorption—a star like, say, Brad Pitt on the set of DiCillo's "Johnny Suede." (The filmmaker denies basing the character on any single actor.) Palomino's career couldn't be going better; already he has two movies scheduled: "In one, I play a rapist that Michelle Pfeiffer falls in love with. In the other one, I play a sort of sexy serial killer who shacks up with Winona Ryder."

Le Gros, who brought a slacker insouciance to such films as "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My New Gun," plays a completely different sort of airhead here. Palomino is the most delicious fodder for comedy imaginable—a dope who thinks he actually has a brain—and Le Gros does an inspired job of capturing this numskull's imperviousness to self-doubt.

Le Gros's performance is bigger and broader than anything he's attempted before. In contrast, Keener's portrayal of Nicole is a hilarious study in subtle shifts of expression; nearly everything she does is a wonderful surprise.

Still, the director is a movie's heart, and in Nick's case, that heart is much beleaguered. With his bony face, bug eyes and lank hair, Buscemi looks like a debauched saint. His performance is really a string of magnificently calibrated slow burns; the more the tension mounts, the funnier Buscemi gets.

Eventually, Nick does manage to get something in the can, and even if the result is not exactly what he intended, there's a sense that maybe—just maybe—the scene will work. In DiCillo's view, making movies is anything but magical, and has at least one trait in common with making sausage: It's best not to look too closely at the process.

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