Down and Pout

Washington City Paper | April 17, 2006
The title character in Lonesome Jim is lonesome, of course, and headed for a bittersweet homecoming of his own. Technically speaking, he’s returning to Indiana, but alert viewers will recognize it as Indie-ana, located right near Nowhere and Nothing Doing. It’s an uglyass place that apparently has only one barkeep and not enough energy to take down its Christmas decorations. (You’ve never seen such sad tinsel.)

Jim (Casey Affleck), naturally, left as quickly as he could for a hardscrabble life in New York, and the only reason he’s coming back is that it seems like the best place for a nervous breakdown. Our boy never quite breaks down, but he never perks up, either. How morose is he? Well, he doesn’t just sit on the family couch—he melds with it, and his old bedroom contains a wall of mournful remembrance: pictures of Poe and Hemingway and Woolf and pretty much every author who ever met a sad end. When he hops in bed with a hot local nurse named Anika (Liv Tyler), his hard-on evaporates at the moment of contact.

As a director, longtime Indie-ana resident Steve Buscemi is well-attuned to the comedy of depression. And as a refined character actor, he’s sure-handed with his supporting cast. Seymour Cassel and Mary Kay Place walk the delicate line between pathos and gargoyle comedy as Jim’s parents, and Mark Boone Junior plays Jim’s pothead uncle as an unnervingly authentic human travesty.

The film’s digital photography is often as ugly as the terrain it’s depicting, but the details in James C. Strouse’s script always feel on-target: a girl’s basketball team of epic badness sponsored by Roush Ladders; a prostitute and her john staring postcoitally at a televangelist. Lonesome Jim is so right in its particulars, so sure in its tone right up to the heart-kneading finale, that you can almost skate over the hollowness at its center.

At one level, Affleck deserves nothing but praise. He successfully conceals his preppy cuteness beneath scruffy whiskers and woolen caps. He never strikes a false note. His line readings are often skillful. But Jim doesn’t move the viewer in the manner of, say, Mark Ruffalo’s disaffected loner in You Can Count on Me. He never quite gets up out of that couch, and it’s virtually impossible to see why Anika takes such a shine to him. The explanation that, as a nurse, she “likes to take care of people” is inadequate, no matter how much Strouse might believe in it.

Anika, of course, is an underwritten part. And Tyler is a frustratingly underrealized screen presence. Never less than ingratiating, she suggests a kind of Dorian Gray ingénue, remaining eternally youthful inside an aging body. As an actress, will she ever bloom into something more complicated than dewy otherworldliness? That’s probably not a question Lonesome Jim meant to ask, but it’s certainly the most interesting.

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