Steve Buscemi's Lonesome Jim takes a standard American indie premise-emotionally stunted hipster-loser goes home, meets local cutie, and learns to face the world-and coaxes it into a comedy of real wit and feeling. There's nothing particularly original in the movie, but moment by moment it hits the right notes, gathering a gentle momentum that's sustained until the very end. Buscemi, unlike many other relatively inexperienced directors, understands that modest ambitions seen through with care and attention can make for a more resonant film than brazen attempts to break new stylistic ground or emulate the masters.
Lonesome Jim opens with the most anti-climactic of homecomings. Jim (Casey Affleck), broke and defeated after a stint as a Manhattan dog-walker, gets off a bus in suburban Indiana and moves back in with his oppressively cheerful mother (the wonderful Mary Kay Place), spaced-out father (Seymour Cassel) and depressed older brother (Kevin Corrigan). When the latter is unexpectedly sidelined by a car accident, Jim, silently reeling from his failure to make it on his own, finds himself saddled with family obligations: a ho-hum job at his parents' factory and a gig coaching a disastrously uncoordinated pre-teen girls basketball team.
But it's when Jim strikes up a tentative romance with Anika (Liv Tyler), a nurse and single mother to a feisty eight-year-old (winningly played by Jack Rovello), that Lonesome Jim hits its stride. From their first "date" (which ends, bless screenwriter James C. Strouse's heart, in premature ejaculation) to their last exchange, the relationship between Jim and Anika is written with a fine ear for the cautious yearnings and automatic defenses of lonely people trying to connect. The two leads, in turn, deliver relaxed, closely observed performances. Affleck never shies away from the more unlikable aspects of his character, lacing Jim's monosyllabic apathy with flashes of hostility so that when he actually tries to express himself, the effect is unexpectedly touching. Tyler does her best work to date, pitch-perfect as the young woman who's willing to take a chance on Jim, but can't afford the luxury of a broken heart. It's worth noting that though the actress has been fetishized writhing in the Tuscan countryside by Bernardo Bertolucci and imagined as an elf princess by Peter Jackson, she's never been more radiant than she is as captured-dressed-down in frumpy Midwestern winter garb-by Buscemi's DV camera.
Lonesome Jim is, might I add, a funny movie, one that gets laughs out of its luckless characters without abandoning them to ridicule (one exception: a motorcycle-riding, drug-dealing white-trash nightmare named "Evil," who explains matter-of-factly that he prefers prostitutes to girlfriends because "it's cheaper"). As he proved in his little-seen directorial debut, Trees Lounge, Buscemi has an uncanny feel for the numbing rhythms and visuals of small-town America-its endless flatness peppered with bus stations, industrial plants, and dingy, mostly empty bars-and a palpable affection for its inhabitants, who inevitably often have nothing much to do. The warm blend of humor and compassion the director brings to the material sees the film through a less-than-convincing final-act twist that threatens to crush everything with unnecessary plot. The fact that we end up buying it is a testament to our willingness to follow these affecting characters down even the unlikeliest of paths. This holds true for a romantic climax that might be hokey if it weren't so delicately underplayed.
Lonesome Jim understands something that the similarly themed Garden State, for all its exuberance, didn't: that less is sometimes more. A study of a pessimistic loner who comes to embrace the frightening possibility of love, Lonesome Jim may indeed be a minor film, but it achieves its own small-scale glow. As the credits started to roll, I came to a pleasant and all-too-rare moviegoing realization: The smile that had crept across my face during the very first scene had never left.