Currently on view in “Fargo,” Buscemi has been one of the mainstays of the Gotham indie film scene for a decade. He has said that his first outing as a filmmaker can be taken as a speculative autobiography, a projection of what his life might have been like had he never left the Long Island village of Valley Stream and gone into acting.
His might-have-been life is a pretty sorry one, filled with irresponsible behavior and underachievement. Tommy (Buscemi) is a joker, an alcoholic and, at 31, a loser. He has been fired from his job as an auto mechanic for “borrowing”$ 1,500 from the shop without informing his boss and best friend, Rob (Anthony LaPaglia), who has taken up with Tommy’s longtime girlfriend, Theresa (Elizabeth Bracco), now very pregnant with a kid who may or may not be Tommy’s.
At such a standstill that he can’t even fix his own car, Tommy spends most ofhis time downing drinks at the neighborhood watering hole, the Trees Lounge, and conveniently lives above the ’50s-style establishment. Tommy hustles drinks and one-night stands, and gets kicked out periodically for his excessive behavior, but overall he spends more time there than anyone but an old man named Bill, who never moves from his stool.
Plenty of other people pass through the bar and Tommy’s life. Mike (Mark Boone Junior) is a family man with big problems at home. Uncle Al (Seymour Cassel) ups and dies, bringing diverse family members together for endless bickering at the funeral and giving Tommy the opportunity to take over Al’s ice cream truck. Debbie (Chloe Sevigny) is a hot little 17-year-old with a big crush on Tommy, and when she starts riding around in his truck, it leads to an ill-advised night together that Debbie’s hot-headed father (Danny Baldwin) won’t let Tommy live down.
Neither the comedy nor the melodrama of these situations is punched up in a manipulative way, as Buscemi, seemingly taking his cue from indie pioneer John Cassavetes, roots everything in his characters and actors. Much of the humor stems from people’s eruptions when they find out about the silly, sly and slipshod behavior of Tommy and others. While there are limits to the possibilities of such scenes, the essential reality of the settings and verisimilitude of the characters and situations keep the film from seeming hokey or contrived.
Fortunately, Tommy must finally face up to the repercussions of his shenanigans, which ultimately damage himself much more than any of his momentary victims. Without forcing an unnaturally dramatic climax, Buscemi poignantly conveys the dead-end nature of the lives on display without condescension. He has also happily refrained from giving “Trees Lounge” even a hint of the self-conscious downtown hipness to be found in many of the pictures in which he has appeared as an actor. This is a working-class film through and through, as defined by the bar of the title, in which neither the decor nor the jukebox entries have changed in decades.
Buscemi has filled out the large cast with both familiar faces from the indie scene and unfamiliar newcomers, all of whom seem completely at home. Cassel, Buscemi’s co-star in “In the Soup,” establishes the link to Cassavetes, while some of the bigger names, such as Samuel L. Jackson and Mimi Rogers, are in very briefly.
The film’s virtues are modest, but Buscemi has come out on top by taking on people and a place he clearly knows inside out. Tech contributions on the low-budgeter are modest but solid.