Second Best Review
By Chris Barsanti
An embittered writer's movie about the coruscating damage of jealousy and the impossibility of finding nobility in failure, Second Best has a pretty good time with its characters, even with all the sad sacks on display. Written and directed by Eric Weber, it's all about Elliot Kelman (Joe Pantoliano), a former publishing executive who bombed out and returned to his small New Jersey hometown - more than a whiff of autobiography here, as Weber was once a big-city ad exec but now lives in a small town and writes screenplays - where he spends his time obsessing over his failure and that of his group of friends. As a means of getting his creative juices out (or simply rubbing his depression in everybody's face), Elliot writes a weekly missive about "The Loser," which he is too scared will be rejected and so just prints up several thousand of them and hires a high school kid to leave them around town. And so, Elliot's self-hating, barely-fictionalized musings about why he and others like him are failures, and why it's better to acknowledge that than delude themselves, flutter in the wind, taped to delicatessen windows, stuffed under windshield wipers, blowing down the street.
The big event awaited by Elliot's friends - a bum but friendly bunch that include a broke real estate agent, an ER doctor and an older guy with prostate cancer - is the arrival of their old friend, movie magnate Richard (Boyd Gaines), whose newest blockbuster just won a slew of Oscars. The jealousy that envelops all of is deadly, of course, but at least Richard lets them play at a nice golf course, so it's not all bad. Although Weber doesn't go the expected route by turning Richard into a preening Hollywood villain, that doesn't stop Elliot (who sells suits at the mall and cadges money from everybody he knows, including his nursing home-confined mother) from feeling bitterly resentful at his friend's wealth and success.
As a meditation on just what it's like to be a failure (a subject just about never dealt with honestly, or even tangentially, by Hollywood), Second Best is heartbreakingly honest. There's no big redemption waiting for Elliot and his buddies, we're not going to see them move beyond their small and somewhat ragged lives, because in a sense there's no need for them to. The film belongs in the small but nevertheless grand tradition of New Jersey idylls (Trees Lounge and Garden State, mostly), in which the characters' small and seemingly passionless lives are suffused with a lyrical sense of suburban peace and beauty. Also like those films, this is all about the actors, with Pantoliano more than holding his own, eschewing the mannered tics that have been cluttering up his performances of late, and snapping off his lines of dialogue like a Beat poet gone to seed in the suburbs. The supporting cast does wonders as well, especially Gaines, whose quietly assured work as the big shot coming home to hang with his deadbeat friends is shockingly genuine. Somewhere along the way, there's also Jennifer Tilly as a sexy crossing guard ("Carole with an 'e'" she breathes in her Monroe-on-helium voice), showing up for no other reason than some badly needed humor - and estrogen.
Although DV-shot, and somewhat raggedy at that, and filled with loathing and a rather filthy sense of humor, this is a surprisingly peaceful film, more concerned with shady streets than grim close-ups of the haunted writer at work. Proof that the suburbs aren't all bad.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 30th September 1994
Distributed by: Warner Home Video
Production compaines: Regency Enterprises, Alcor Films, Fron Film Production
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Cast & Crew