Perchance may we have a new "protagonist returns home to quirky family" indie every month? In February it was Winter Passing, and now in March we have Lonesome Jim, the third feature directed by character actor Steve Buscemi. Premiering at Sundance in 2005, Lonesome Jim shared the festival's obligatory slot for the subgenre I like to call "homecoming-of-age" that year with Junebug, a film receiving more acclaim thanks to Amy Adams' amazing, Oscar-nominated performance that altogether forgives for its miscarried script.
Based on their frequency, as well as on their banality and oftentimes their feebleness, scripts in this category would seem to be the easiest to write. What novice filmmaker can't fall back on relating to what he or she knows, whether major fear or horrible experience, of what it is like to return home after losing either a parent or the confidence of an artistic goal? Not all of these stories have autobiographical roots but most, like those in the younger-focused coming-of-age genre, project an association between the main character and the storyteller, giving an always upbeat outlook beyond the last scene regardless of its apparent literal direction.
Is Jim (Casey Affleck) an incarnation of screenwriter James C. Strouse? I've read the film is loosely based on the
latter's experiences, and that the character's revisited Indiana town is the one in which Strouse grew up, so yeah,
it's likely. Obviously, lonesome Jim goes on to become successful James, future director of a John Cusack movie
(Grace is Gone, scheduled for 2007), regardless of how loosely one is actually based on the other outside of
our assumptive mind.
The key is not to worry about the outcome of the people populating these stories; Instead follow them incidentally through their time on screen. Oh, wait. Isn't that the key to enjoying any movie? Well, of course, except that in smaller films we tend to look for the bigger picture, the theme or message being mulled over and conveyed. But there is plenty of time afterwards to think about the point of Lonesome Jim, and whether it really means anything to anyone besides its writer. While sitting there watching the movie, all you really need to do is laugh, because it is hilarious throughout. By far it is the funniest thing I saw during the festival, and I saw 36 films and also witnessed Crispin Glover being awkwardly unsociable during a crowded meet and greet, which was pretty damn amusing.
Jim's homecoming is due to his inability to achieve his dream as a writer. He leaves New York and goes to live with his parents (Seymour Cassel and Mary Kay Place) and older brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), a divorced father of two little girls (real-life sisters, and nieces of the screenwriter, Rachel and Sarah Strouse) who has apparently already done the whole rejoining the family thing himself. Once there, Jim tries to give Tim a pep talk and inadvertently influences a suicide attempt instead. While Tim rehabilitates, Jim fills in for him at their parents' ladder factory, working alongside his drug-dealing Uncle "Evil" (Buscemi staple Mark Boone Junior). Also, to conform to the subgenre, Jim begins dating a cute townie girl named Anika (Liv Tyler), a single-mom who he meets in the requisite townie bar.
So, now that the plot is over and we've laughed at its events, including Jim's indifferent coaching of his nieces' basketball team and Uncle Evil's crazy wisdom, as well as appreciated Casey Affleck for being a more appealing actor than his brother Ben, it is time to examine the film's purpose. First, why is it that the story of a depressed and depressing loser is so humorous? Sad-sack dark comedies work on a level of contempt. Even those of us who connect with Jim's tale are likely able to feel more psychologically affluent than him. The exaggerated misfortunes of his life, while surely therapeutic for Strouse to devise, exist primarily to get a rise out of us by raising us above his character. Jim's existence is that of a clown who performs a sort of mental slapstick.
The beauty of Lonesome Jim is that its hapless protagonist is even outdone in his misery and loserdom by his brother. Jim echoes the relativity of our own betterment by telling Tim, "I think about ending it all as it is. I can't imagine if I had your life." Later on he tells Anika that, "maybe everyone would be better off if I wasn't a miserable fuck all the time." If only he could realize at that moment how much, with exception to Tim, the opposite is actually true.
Lonesome Jim has great relevance to the lost adultolescent generation of today, as more twenty-somethings are living at home again, but it also flounders in its commonplace and too-familiar concept. Both the residual slackers of Generation X and their depressive and regressive tendencies are passé, not because they are old news—although they are—but because of mainstream culture's exploitation and passing concern. The "homecoming-of-age" subgenre has recently experienced its over-celebrated indie (Garden State) and its flopped Hollywood effort (Elizabethtown), neither of which dealt with their subject matter boldly or insightfully.
In being constantly overshadowed by these mainstream films, the smaller, more sincere examples gain necessity, but they lose influence and must therefore stand out in some way. In addition to Grouse's hysterical yet honest enough script, Buscemi's attention to the film's drearily absurd tone, accentuated by the best-looking digital cinematography to come from an InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment) production yet, further dignifies the film's place in the world. In circuits and markets where this subgenre makes regular and token appearances, Lonesome Jim shows distinction.