A 1970 novel by Anne Tyler, about a young small-town woman who becomes obsessed with a musician, is adapted rather haplessly for the screen by Toni Kalem in “A Slipping Down Life,” a frail independent feature with an impressive cast but not much energy and equally little point. The slackness of approach is presumably intended to invest the very simple story with some deep, moody undercurrents, but the tactic doesn’t work: despite the best efforts of the leads, there’s a pervasive flimsiness to the piece that the movie never transcends.
Lili Taylor plays Evie Decker, a timid woman working at a children’s park in a run-down North Carolina town. She lives with her widowed father (Tom Bower), a fragile heart attack survivor, and the most exciting aspects of her life are outings with her best friend Violet (Sara Rue, whose pinched expression in the face of almost everything is understandable). Late one night she hears a radio interview with “Drumstrings” Casey (Guy Pearce), a local rocker with anti-establishment streak and a penchant for shifting into obscure, darkly poetic monologues during his numbers (the songs were written for the movie by Robyn Hitchcock and Rex Sexsmith, but they’re pretty generic), and she drags Violet to one of his concerts. Soon she’s attending his performances regularly, and one night during a concert at a dumpy roadhouse, she impulsively carves his name onto her forehead with a piece of broken glass. Casey’s seedy drummer-manager (suitably sleazy John Hawkes) sees the publicity value Evie now possesses, and before long she’s become a sort of mascot to the shuffling, grungy guitarist, attending all his gigs and attracting attention to him. When Casey gets a break in the big city, however, he tries to go it alone without her and flops. His sheepish return leads to an odd romance–something of which Mr. Decker’s maid (Irma P. Hall, coming perilously close to caricature) disapproves–which results in a marriage with serious problems, especially since Casey’s career appears to be going nowhere (eventually he takes a menial job with an exterminating service).
Though not without interest, this story–at least in Kalem’s refashioning of it–remains, with one exception, obstinately superficial. The script has some excellent moments–a disastrous dinner that Evie arranges for her father and Casey’s parents (the excellent Veronica Cartwright and Marshall Bell) brings things abruptly to life, and some other scenes also generate genuine atmosphere. But for the most part the narrative seems lackadaisical, and Kalem directs it in a languid, desultory way. Nor is Taylor much help. She certainly nails Evie’s shyness–an act she’s played before–but without any support from the script, she’s unable to offer any indication as to why the character might be so irresistibly drawn to Casey or anyone else. Yes, we get the idea that Evie’s repressed and feels trapped in an unsatisfying life, but the escape that the singer represents for her is never so much dramatized as simply taken for granted. The result is that Evie seems as though she might be mentally deficient in some respect–something that Taylor’s perpetually blank expression and preternaturally unruffled mien seem actually to support. The opacity at the picture’s center is fatal. There is, however, one big saving grace–Pearce. The Australian wouldn’t seem right for the part, but apart from the fact that his southern accent slips Down Under on occasion, he draws a surprisingly convincing portrait of a gloomy, self-absorbed, tortured and unappreciated artist (at least in his own mind). Tall, lanky, scraggily long-haired, slouched over in the way characteristic of teen rebels, and wearing the same ragged jeans and plaid shirt almost perpetually, Pearce manages to suggest layers in Casey that Yaylor never implants in Evie. But even he can’t salvage the happy turn at the end of the film, which is at once pat and inconclusive.
“A Slipping-Down Life” was shot around Austin, and it has a suitably shabby, downtrodden look. The production design apparently aims at a timeless effect–people listen to regular stereos and cherish their LP collections, without a CD player in sight, but the inspection sticker on Evie’s car reads 1999 (by which year the picture was completed–and shown at Sundance)–but that doesn’t carry much resonance. At certain points, especially in the last reel, the editing seems jagged, with overly abrupt transitions and narrative lapses where one feels bits of the narrative have simply been lopped off. But perhaps that’s just part of an attempt to slim down a long-shelved film for theatrical exposure. What a viewing makes clear is that though the delay in release might have been long, the release itself will be quite brief.