Lonesome Jim

Opens at Uptown, Fri., April 7. Not rated. 91 minutes.

Maybe you have to be a guy who identifies with Steve Buscemi to like his movies, a depressive, artsy, thwarted boho boy like I was for years. Otherwise, you're bound to be irritated by the droning comic tone and wintry mind he shares with screenwriter James C. Strouse, and also by the fact that they can't imagine a female protagonist, only a wish-fulfillment figure with no motives of her own.

Casey Affleck is just right for Buscemian hero Jim, who's worse than lonesome—he's back home in Indiana after his aspiring Manhattan literary career ended in a string of dog-walking jobs. He's greeted by his unsinkably chipper (if transparently despairing) mother, played by winsome genius Mary Kay Place, and irascibly baffled dad (Seymour Cassel). They want him to come work in the family ladder factory, and the film is rooted where all ladders start: the foul rag and bone shop of the Hoosier heart. Soon Jim is also roped into taking over his still more depressive brother's hapless girls' basketball team, after his brother (Kevin Corrigan) makes a failed suicide attempt. A loser even at suicide!

As a coach, Jim is the antithesis of Gene Hackman in Hoosiers—this movie could be called Hoosiers in Hell. There is rich humor in Jim's eternal shrug, but you have to be a ready audience, or you'll want to slap him around. I think if you're a woman, you'll really want to slap him when he meets the girl of his dreams, the gorgeous, nurturing, forgiving, easy-lay nurse Anika (Liv Tyler). He's terrible in bed and never calls, yet still she's devoted to him—as if engaged in a selflessness contest with his mom. Tyler is actually pretty good in this preposterous role, not just her usual, blank She-Walks-in-Beauty cliché, but she remains a different kind of cliché, a slacker's fantasy.

Finally there's a break from the glum, trudging numbness when we meet Jim's uncle (Mark Boone Junior), who uses the ladder factory to front his dope-dealing business. He's just another cliché, but a fun one, cousin to Jason Lee's character in My Name Is Earl—a practical man who recommends hookers as a cheaper alternative to girlfriends.

Sentimental in the end, the movie is an underachiever from an actor-director who's one of the busiest, most successful guys in indie film. (Also a contented husband and father, it should be noted.) But I guess Buscemi is still nostalgic for the bad old days. You may hate the film, but I know how he feels.

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