With an overture of soundtrack harmonica, wintry Midwestern loneliness, hardscrabble road-movie keynotes, and a general air of mute foreboding, Steve Buscemi’s new film Lonesome Jim makes a big bid for ’70s-ness—the desolate, figures-in-a-landscape vibe epitomized by, say, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop. But something’s missing—the ’70s themselves, a moment of meaning when social pessimism, counterculture market forces, grainy film stock, and folky daydreaming about the meaning of America all gelled into a frostbitten daguerreotype of disillusionment and godlessness. It’s been the coolest retro-tone in dependie Hollywood for a decade or more now, a concentrated look-back-in-envy toward a neorealism unpickled by irony. Now that digital imagery (Buscemi’s film is another InDigEnt production) is virtually indistinguishable from handheld celluloid, where’s the 21st century’s own nasty, truth-seeking front edge?
As it is, Lonesome Jim soon evolves into a comedy, or at least it can be one in the proper frame of mind, a toast-dry farce about depression seen, necessarily, from outside the terrarium. The titular hero is Jim (Casey Affleck), a gray-hearted twentysomething writer returning to his middle-class home in Indiana after failing in Manhattan, where he survived by walking dogs and waiting tables at Applebee’s. His family—overbearing Mom Mary Kay Place, shrugging Dad Seymour Cassel, equally disaffected bro Kevin Corrigan—is designed to trigger everyone’s fight-or-flight response, but not so absurdly that the film attains an original or adequately satiric sensibility. It’s one long interlude, for us and Jim, as he endures his mom’s brutal cuddling, talks down his brother so plainly that Corrigan’s fleshy loser drives his car (offscreen) into a tree, hangs with a dopehead uncle who’s renamed himself Evil (Mark Boone Junior), and eventually meets—not so cutely—angelic nurse Liv Tyler, whose heaven-sent goodness and happy promiscuity seem to be what the headshrinker might’ve ordered.
No such luck for Jim, who mopes without recourse to salvation in alt-mag cartoonist James C. Strouse’s screenplay; as a study of the tension between glass-half-full optimism and chronic despair, it offers few, even irreverent, insights, and evades chemistry. (Antidepressants are never mentioned, but with them Buscemi wouldn’t have a movie.) Lonesome Jim, as redundant as its title, has little of the grungy energy and love for decaying infrastructure Buscemi brought firsthand to the semi-autobio Trees Lounge. Affleck and Corrigan, sharing a sloe-eyed, slack-jawed anomie, make for convincing siblings, but their conversations have no past sewn into them. Of course, that’s the challenge Buscemi set for himself: Make a movie about mumbling depressives that in itself won’t be overcome by tedium. Despite the presence of Tyler and assorted smart-mouthed kids roaming through the narrative, he doesn’t quite succeed; insofar as we empathize at all, it’s not unreasonable for us to hope Tyler turns tail and forgets she ever met this family.
Jim’s briefly itemized idolization of self-destructive writers like Hemingway, Breece Pancake, and Richard Yates is all the cultural, and psychological, context we get. Shot in and around Strouse’s Indiana hometown (and featuring scores of Strouse relatives in the credits, a few thanked twice), Lonesome Jim has the import of a deliberately squelched sitcom, or a home movie that’s poisoned by unhappiness but shown anyway for stray laughs.