If you were to saddle Garden State with a far less likeable lead and set it in Indiana, you might end up with this small gem, the latest from actor-cum-director Steve Buscemi. The Lonesome Jim in question (Casey Affleck) returns home ostensibly to find himself, but really he's just there to mooch off his folks until he can plan his next move. The fact that he finds himself in spite of himself saves this film from being a mere installment of "Profiles in Schmuck-itude," even if it ups the cheese factor as a result.
The movie begins with Jim's surprise arrival at his parents' house. His brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), still lives there but is less than pleased to see him. His mother, Sally (Mary Kay Place), is overjoyed but clueless as to Jim's unhappiness, even as he breaks down within minutes of walking through the door. And his father, Don (Seymour Cassel), in response to Jim's claim that his breakdown is due to "dehydration," simply suggests a cup of water.
As the film goes on, Jim gets involved with Anika (Liv Tyler, with yet another Affleck), a nurse he meets in a bar and her son, Ben (Jack Rovello). When Tim crashes his car into a tree in what appears to be a passive/aggressive suicide attempt, Jim bears some of the blame, having offhandedly suggested moments earlier that Tim, living at home with a dead-end job and alimony payments, would be better off dead. Don then compels Jim to work in his brother's stead at the family's factory with his mother. There he meets Evil (Mark Boone Junior), a cousin with a drug habit and impossibly low standards.
Jim is a sad sack. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, he's monumentally depressed. He has no hope, and is about as cynical as they come. He's also a bit of a jerk. He steals money from his mother and is slow to act when she's accused of a crime he can prove she didn't commit. And through all of it, Anika and her son somehow see something they like, though that appeal remains elusive.
Affleck's disaffected performance allows Jim's behavior to come off as insensitive and funny all at once. Place's portrayal of Sally subtly conveys the sadness and wisdom beneath an apparently naïve and saccharine exterior. This makes Jim's relationship with his mother one of the most frustrating and ultimately satisfying aspects of the movie.
The most priceless moments, however, belong to Junior as the drugged-out Evil. He tells Jim that he "uses hookers" because they're "cheaper" than getting a girlfriend, spikes his weed with crack, and upon presenting Jim with his prized collection of animal skulls announces, without a hint of irony, "They're animal skulls." He provides a nice foil for the better angels of Jim's nature.
As a director, Buscemi (Trees Lounge) doesn't shy away from the more awkward moments in Jim's life, be it coitus interruptus, premature ejaculation, or urination exercises (suggested by Evil, of course) meant to cure that problem. If anything, Buscemi's camera finds these moments just as important as the quieter ones that hint at some decency beneath Jim's self-centeredness, like lighting a cigarette for a man with one arm. That kind of even-handed focus makes for a fuller portrait, but it also makes for a slower pace. Clocking in at 87 minutes, the film feels like a solid 120.
Though Lonesome Jim isn't the breeziest fare in town, it certainly makes good use of Buscemi's attention to character and sense of humor which, at times, is downright hilarious. If you've had days where you can't stand the sight of a sunny disposition, you'll want to meet Jim.
Reviewed at the 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival.
The DVD includes a making-of featurette and a commentary track from Buscemi and writer James Strouse.