An amusing, cunningly structured look at the perils of film production, “Living in Oblivion” is an inside joke with a generosity of heart and humor that makes it accessible to anyone who would take an interest. Modest in scale and ambition, and sophisticated without being exclusionarily hip, second feature by former lenser Tom DiCillo ostensibly examines the anxieties and mishaps that can befall the creators of low-budget pictures, but its observations could be applied to virtually any group collaborative process where egos, wills, talents, libidos and technology collide. Film-on-film format will limit pic’s public, and bleak title indicates nothing about its subject or nature, but jaunty entry could still generate a certain following in the specialized urban market.
Although it’s hardly essential to enjoyment of the film, recollection that DiCillo directed Brad Pitt in the 1992 New York low-budgeter “Johnny Suede” adds a level of appreciation to “Oblivion,” as the central episode here concerns the preening, egocentric behavior of a young blond-maned star on a shoestring shoot.
Employing a structural formalism reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch, for whom he shot “Stranger Than Paradise,” DiCillo limits his focus to the making of three specific scenes of his film-within-the-film.
Pic begins in grainy black-and-white with crew and actors rousing themselves at 4 a.m. for the day’s work, which involves the shooting of an emotional scene between Nicole (Catherine Keener) and her mother, Cora (Rica Martens). As the director, Nick (Steve Buscemi), tries to contain himself and keep his thesps in the mood, one disaster after another foils his attempt to cover the sequence in one take: The boom man lowers the mike into frame, the focus puller messes up, loud street noise wafts into the studio and a light bulb explodes.
At this, the unnerved actresses begin blowing their lines, but then a transformation takes place and they enact the scene brilliantly — only the camera isn’t running, as the macho cinematographer, Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), is in the bathroom throwing up.
All this is a nightmare for Nick, but nothing compared to his next task, which is directing guest star Chad Palomino (James LeGros). Chad starts his visit to New York by bedding Nicole, and has the other women on the set, including the very in-charge a.d. Wanda (Danielle von Zerneck) and script supervisor (Hilary Gilford), plotting their own moves on the arrogant airhead.
Pic’s comic highlights stem from Chad’s dimwitted notions of how to improve the scene, which include appropriating Wolf’s black eyepatch and changing the blocking so that he, and not Nicole, will be visible to the camera. DiCillo strongly gets across the ways — both subtle and blatant — in which an all-powerful star can throw his weight around, and how others react to such a personality, even when he’s a certifiable imbecile.
Third episode, involving Nicole in a sequence with an overly sensitive dwarf and, later, Nick’s mother, is the least of the three and, by its thinness, points up the fragility of DiCillo’s conception. Pic as a whole begins running out of gas before the end and seems to be fishing with decreasing success for fresh ideas before last segment is over.
Performances go a long way to putting the film over, with LeGros, Buscemi, Keener, Mulroney and von Zerneck all contributing energy, sexiness and high humor. Technically, film is terrific, with cinematographer Frank Prinzi and production designer Therese Deprez helping make the film very pleasing to the eye, and editor Camilla Toniolo timing things perfectly for laughs.
Making a first film and then a self-reflexive second picture is a curious business, but DiCillo never pretends that this film is more important than it is , and has made a pleasing, if modest, contribution to the genre of films about the making of films.