The third feature by actor-turned-director Steve Buscemi is rather like many of his performances: it’s slight, deadpan, mild and understated, but enjoyable in a quiet, almost throwaway fashion. Like the title character, “Lonesome Jim” is hardly going to set the world on fire–it burns with much too pale a flame for that–but patient viewers will find that it offers some nice little rewards.
The title character, played by Casey Affleck, is a bedraggled, perpetually downcast twenty-something fellow who returns to his hometown of Goshen, Indiana, after failing to make it as a writer during a sojourn in New York City, during which his main occupation seems to have been dog-walking. Depressed and gloomy, and worshiping a stable of literary types whose sole connecting link seems to have been that they were all suicidal, Jim moves back in with his parents Don (Seymour Cassel), the down-to-earth owner of a small ladder factory, and the buoyant Sally (Mary Kay Place), who dotes on Jim and his older brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan). It doesn’t take long before Jim has convinced Tim, who–being divorced and employed at the family business, is even worse off than he is–that his life is a misery, and he soon tries to kill himself, unsuccessfully (of course). As a result Jim has to take over some of Tim’s fatherly duties, becoming the conspicuously inept coach of the basketball team his two young nieces play on. He also gets involved not only with his raucously unstable uncle Evil (Mark Boone Junior), who also works at the factory but deals drugs on the side, but also with a beautiful, piquant nurse named Anika (Liv Tyler), who’s rather unaccountably interested in him (as is her predictably precocious young son Ben, played by Jack Rovello).
“Lonesome Jim” rattles along without much energy–a quality accentuated by Affleck’s performance, so laid-back and shambling that he sometimes seems like Buscemi himself at half-speed. And the lackadaisical quality is compounded by the presence of Corrigan, who matches Affleck in meandering dishevelment. But over the long run they both come across as more endearing than boring, and the other members of the cast add spice to the mix. Tyler, more animated than she often has been, makes a good contrast to them both, and Rovelto is the rare child actor who can generate charm without becoming cloying. And though Cassel is underused Place’s incessantly perky demeanor, with just a hint of the pathos underneath, wins sympathy over the long haul (especially when she’s hauled off to the pokey for Evil’s malfeasance), and Boone picks up any slack as her rumpled, larcenous brother-in-law.
Buscemi shot the movie in Goshen, and in collaboration with cameraman Phil Parmet, he creates a real sense of place–a rather desolate, plain place to be sure, but one that’s genuine. The musical choices add to the mood of broken-down hopes and dashed dreams.
“Lonesome Jim” is a small, almost apologetic movie that shows how conventions sometimes blown out of all proportion in Hollywood movies–like the very final “twist”–can be made to feel reasonably fresh and charming if handled with modesty and a lack of pretension. Like Buscemi, it may be more at home at film festivals than in large auditoriums, but for viewers with patience and a willingness to give a picture time to breathe, it’s worth searching out.