Shiny Shelf


By Jim Smith on 24 November 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

In his review of ‘The Wendall Baker Story’ m’colleague Mr Lavington identified a certain type of American indie film. His description was certainly accurate, and the tropes he went on to list apply to Steve Buscemi’s third directorial feature ‘Lonesome Jim’ as equally as they do to ‘The Wendall Baker Story’. Now, while that’s a little unnerving, I’m not going to let it get in the way of my appreciation of this appealing slice of Americana.

Casey Affleck plays the titular Jim, a man slouching towards thirty who suddenly has to, thanks to his incompetence in running his own life, drag himself across America, from the glamour of his self-chosen home in New York back to his parents’ house in the Midwest. This, to him, represents the ultimate failure – having to rely on the parents that, tragically, he loves but neither likes nor understands.

It’s something that we, the audience, don’t quite get, actually. As his parents are, while characterised as comic semi-grotesques, clearly warm and loving people who can, would and indeed do do absolutely anything for him. Affleck is superb in a role which it would be too easy to make either to sympathetic or not sympathetic at all. Affleck’s round, cheery face is instinctively likeable but so many of Jim’s actions are (unconsciously) spectacularly selfish and self-pitying that we do have more than a few reservations about him. It’s a tricky balance to pull off and Casey manages it with aplomb.

It is one of those aforementioned staggeringly selfish moments that creates the impetus of the plot of ‘Lonesome Jim’. Our ‘hero’ points out to his older, divorced, living-back-with-parents-also, but paying-for-his-two-kids-into-the-bargain brother Tim that his own life is worse than Jim’s, it is ‘a Greek tragedy’. Faced with the disapproval of his younger sibling, Tim attempts suicide and Jim has to shoulder some of Tim’s responsibilities while tying to work out what kind of person he is, whose fault it all is really, and why he’s never really made a go of anything.

I’ve probably made the movie sound grimmer than it is; that it manages to deal with its subject matter lightly and without being grim is in part down the witty, matter-of-fact tone and the generally excellent performances. As well as Affleck we get a never-better Liv Tyler who is puppyish, warm, immensely appealing and utterly real as the pretty single mother that Jim finds himself dating. There’s also the spectacular Mark Boone Junior as ‘Evil’ Jim’s dope-dealing, hooker-hiring, dissolute trailer trash uncle and Mary Kay Place and Seymour Cassel who are absolutely outstanding even in this splendid ensemble cast.

Serving as a flipside to Buscemi’s previous ‘Trees Lounge’ (which was the story of a man who never left home and thus judged himself a failure) ‘Lonesome Jim’ works not as an ‘against all odds’ story but rather as a portrayal of somebody mentally re-orienting themselves, letting go of the last vestiges of adolescence and discovering that that doesn’t also mean letting go of the last vestiges of childhood in the process.

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