One of the criticisms launched against last year’s “Napoleon Dynamite” was that rather than liking its own characters, the movie simply held them up for derision. Similar arguments are often made against films by Joel and Ethan Coen, too, and while I can always see the critics’ point, the idea that a filmmaker is mocking his own characters is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. If it’s funny, it’s funny.
But in “Lonesome Jim,” a caustic comedy about depression written by first-timer James C. Strouse and directed by Steve Buscemi — a regular Coen Bros. actor, you’ll note — this attitude of condescension toward the characters becomes a problem. For while the film mocks its inhabitants’ small-town nerdiness the way “Napoleon” did, it also puts them in situations that require actual learning and growth, the way “Garden State” did. Either they are cardboard cutouts whom we can laugh at without feeling bad, or they are fully realized characters who deserve our sympathy. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t make us laugh AT someone and then expect us to cry WITH them. Or maybe you can and you just shouldn’t. Or maybe you can, and should, and “Lonesome Jim” just doesn’t do it well enough. I’ll have to think about that some more.
Whatever the rule is, “Lonesome Jim” manages to be a pretty good movie overall, if you can adjust to the shifts in tone. It will feel a lot like “Garden State,” if you saw that movie; in this case, it’s a depressed 27-year-old nobody named Jim (Casey Affleck) who leaves his failed life in New York City to return home to Indiana and re-collect himself. He finds his father, Don (Seymour Cassel), as distant and useless as ever, and his mother, the ever-chirpy Sally (Mary Kay Place), eternally optimistic and oblivious to things like “privacy” or “personal space.” She calls Jim “my pretty boy” and her other son, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), “my big baby,” coddling them, giving them money, doing whatever it takes to keep them happy.
They are not happy, though, perhaps because she has never let them grow up and face reality, and possibly for other reasons. Tim is more listless than Jim, divorced already and coaching a girls’ basketball team on which his young daughters play (badly). Jim observes that it’s a wonder his older brother hasn’t killed himself yet, and then Tim drives his car into a tree and winds up in a coma. “I sort of came home to have a nervous breakdown, but the bastard beat me to it,” Jim says ruefully.
Jim goes to work at the family’s factory, where his Uncle Evil (Mark Boone Junior), a devotee of pot and hookers, uses company time and resources to sell drugs. Jim also meets a local girl named Anika (Liv Tyler), who has a young son named Ben (Jack Rovello) to whom Jim can be a bit of a father figure — albeit a morose, aimless one — while he courts the lad’s mother.
The plot attempts a difficult maneuver when the cops discover the drug-moving operation and Uncle Evil frames Sally for it. Up to now, we have laughed disbelievingly at how inconsiderate and disrespectful Jim is toward his clueless mother, at how the family still has its Christmas decorations up, at all the other things meant to nudge us in the ribs and say, “See what rubes these locals are?” But putting Sally in jail sort of crosses the line, especially because the film doesn’t treat it like an outrageous dark-comedy development, but like an actual event that warrants consideration and sympathy.
The film often sacrifices some depth for silliness, as when Sally, finally released from jail, says she’s going to make some cobbler “for all the nice girls I met in County.” But even that helps develop, in its own way, the character of Sally. She is a cartoon at first, but she eventually grows into a real person, and we see that though Jim (and the movie) considers her to be naive, she’s actually just optimistic. Played by the grossly under-appreciated Mary Kay Place (who was one of the high points in the otherwise ham-fisted “Latter Days,” also playing a loving mother), she loves her children no matter what screw-ups they are, and no matter what problems they face. It’s not that she doesn’t see the dark side of life; it’s that she chooses to ignore it. Maybe that’s naive, but maybe naivete is refreshing in a figure whose duty is to help you be happy. It certainly provides a contrast to the dreariness of the world.
That’s what I think, anyway. Jim disagrees with me, and the way he treats his mother is heartbreaking at times. Casey Affleck has a comic charm about him, though, his delivery a sleepy-voiced whine that gives him an aw-shucks likability despite Jim’s immaturity and inconsiderateness.
In the end, through Jim’s hilariously uninspiring pep talks to the girls’ basketball team (which he takes over for Tim), we get the real point behind all this low-key comedy and quirky family angst. In basketball as in life, you get out there and play even when you know you’re going to lose. And why do you do it? Dunno. You just do. There is a sweetness, eventually, under the detached comedy of this funny, uneven film.
B (1 hr., 27 min.; )