Cast as an introverted woman who impulsively disrupts her life of quiet desperation in small-town North Carolina, Lili Taylor gives an appealingly quirky performance in “A Slipping-Down Life.” Overall, however, this indie production, based on the 1970 novel by Anne Tyler, is a curiously bland drama that fails to fulfill the promise of its early scenes. Commercial prospects are, at best, iffy. It doesn’t help that writer-director Toni Kalem has taken several liberties with Tyler’s well-regarded book, practically guaranteeing a sizable amount of critical hazing.
In Tyler’s original, Evie Decker is a slightly plump and painfully shy 17-year-old high school student who finds herself drawn to local talent Drumstrings Casey, a sullen 19-year-old rock musician who occasionally shouts cryptic, pseudo-poetic phrases while performing. (Think Jim Morrison, with less sex appeal and marginal talent.) Attraction quickly evolves into obsession. While attending one of Casey’s performances in a seedy roadhouse, Evie carves his name on her forehead.
Evie’s reserved father is quietly appalled, and Violet, Evie’s only friend, is noisily aghast. But the rock musician is impressed, sort of. He visits her in the hospital and poses with Evie for a news photographer, if only to exploit the incident for publicity purposes.
Evie offers to generate additional publicity by attending each of Drum’s roadhouse performances. All goes reasonably well until Drum gets the chance to perform at a larger venue in a nearby city and doesn’t invited Evie, sparking a bitter quarrel. But when Drum’s gig ends in disaster, he seeks consolation and inspiration from Evie.
Kalem, a character actress (“Private Benjamin,” “The Wanderers”) making her feature directing debut, follows the broad outlines of Tyler’s plot. To be sure, she wasn’t able to resist the temptation to concoct a more upbeat, crowd-pleasing ending for her screenplay adaptation. But that isn’t the main reason why Kalem’s “A Slipping-Down Life” will be targeted for some critical flak.
By turning a 17-year-old high school student into a woman in her late 20s, all the better to accommodate the casting of Taylor, Kalem has drastically altered the story’s emotional underpinnings. Kalem establishes early in the pic that her Evie feels detached from life and may even be suicidally depressed. That’s enough to provide some semblance of character motivation. But it’s motivation of a different sort — and a character of a much different sort — from what Tyler originally described.
All of which might be excused if Kalem examined the darker implications of Evie’s behavior. But “A Slipping-Down Life” is too muted and tentative to be anything more compelling than a modestly intriguing anecdote.
Taken on its own within this given context, Taylor’s performance is credible and creditable. Throughout the pic, but especially during its second half, she holds one’s attention by slowly revealing Evie’s unexpected strength of will and growing sense of self.
As Drum, a would-be rebel who reveals a surprising fondness for domesticity, Guy Pearce strikes the right balance of sexual swagger and immature vulnerability. There are slight hints here and there that, in Kalem’s version of Tyler’s story, Drum might be slightly younger than Evie. As Drum’s mother, Veronica Cartwright suggests why the rocker might seek in a wife what he couldn’t get as a child.
Drum’s penchant for onstage improvisation of poetry isn’t nearly as shocking or disconcerting now as it might have seemed to concertgoers, or authors, back in 1970. Indeed, the puzzled response that Drum often elicits from his audience implies that “A Slipping-Down Life” isn’t meant to be viewed as a contemporary story. The production and costume designs are drawn from different decades, indicating a deliberate attempt at timelessness. The affectation doesn’t add much to the storytelling.
Among the supporting players, standouts include Tom Bower as Evie’s loving but clueless father, Irma B. Hall as a feisty black maid who stops just short of being a caricature, and Sara Rue as Evie’s robustly sympathetic best friend.
Shot on location in and around Austin, Texas, “A Slipping-Down Life” is well acted and technically proficient. But that’s not quite enough. And if anyone seriously doubts that critics (and ticketbuyers) care when filmmakers alter the works of popular novelists, here are two words to remember: “Simon Birch.”