It’s been a good year for shaggy dog stories. First The Big Lebowski, then I Went Down, and now Hi-Life. Tales of loyalty tested by money, these films have had nothing much loftier in mind than enticing the viewer into the pleasure of following a leisurely, roundabout, often hilarious narrative.
Such unpretentiousness is a welcome change for Roger Hedden, whose two previous screenplays, Bodies, Rest and Motion and Sleep With Me, were similarly meandering in plot but were populated with whining Gen-X characters angsting over portentous sexual and existential crises. In Hi-Life, Hedden’s directing debut, he merely seems out to have a good time, and his high spirits have clearly spread to his fine ensemble.
The title, a mildly ironic comment on the booze-
fueled adventures of the film’s down-and-outers, is the name of the Amsterdam Avenue bar where this jolly Christmas story begins and ends. Bartender Ray (Campbell Scott), a notorious soft touch, spends an evening making the rounds of Upper West Side taverns, accompanied by genial barfly April (casting coup Katrin Cartlidge), trying to collect on old debts to raise $900 for an emergency request from his sister Susan (Moira Kelly). Pursuing Ray and his money are Susan’s unemployed actor boyfriend Jimmy (Hedden sine qua non Eric Stoltz) and Minor (Peter Riegert), who is making sure Jimmy pays off a gambling debt to bookie Fatty (Charles Durning). Also thrown into the chase are Maggie (Daryl Hannah), who’s Jimmy’s sister and Ray’s ex; two goofy EMS workers; a couple of angry wives and girlfriends; a ubiquitous mugger; and a surly Santa Claus.
The money notwithstanding, the film is less about greed than deceit. The characters demand honesty from each other while spinning elaborate lies and self-deceptions. Sometimes they know they’re being lied to, but they’re enjoying the spiel nonetheless.
Most of the performances feel both spontaneous and lived-in, particularly Scott’s exasperated romantic, who’s charming even when he’s nervously intense; Cartlidge’s unapologetic, cheerfully pragmatic drunk; and Riegert’s harried grifter, whose half-baked scam attempt leads to a priceless argument with Stoltz in a taxi.
For most of the film, Hedden juggles these characters and their subplots with humor and dexterity. In a spirit of yuletide generosity, he lets most of his characters wind up with better than they deserve. For viewers, he offers no Dickensian sweetness or lessons, just a frivolous, festive cup of spiked eggnog.