Penned by little-known Midwestern writer James C. Strouse, “Lonesome Jim” is a seriocomedy starring Casey Affleck as a rudderless young man returned to his boring native Indiana burg. Probably the lowest-key feature yet directed by low-key thesp Steve Buscemi, pic sports the same dry, off-center humor, characterful humanity, and deft grasp of milieu that marked “Trees Lounge” and “Animal Factory.” But while those underseen efforts quietly built up to considerable impact, there’s a slightness to the mildly eccentric material here that leaves the whole enterprise in danger of fluttering away. Cable and rental exposure looks likelier than hardtop play.
Back after a couple of barely communicado years in Manhattan — where he’ll only say he worked as a dog-walker — 27-year-old Jim (Affleck) lands on his parents’ doorstep with a thud and a whimper. Clearly the terribly sensitive (read: sulky) aspiring writer did not find success in the Big Apple. But Jim’s whole personality seems built on self-pity and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.
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Nonetheless, mom Sally (Mary Kay Place) expresses delight at his surprise return. Dad Don (Seymour Cassel) is pretty blase about it, while elder brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan) — also back in his old bedroom, licking wounds from marital and career letdowns — is outright hostile.
It’s no wonder the siblings dislike each other: Being under the same roof means constant competition for the title of Most Miserable. Their total self-absorption is ignored by cynically pragmatic dad, while ma has long since dedicated herself to the illusion of a happy family.
Stuck in some undergraduate notion of nihilistic cool, Jim treats his brother’s real-world problems with such cavalier disdain that Tim purposely drives into a tree. This lands him comatose in the hospital where Anika (Liv Tyler), a nurse and single mom with whom Jim has already had a pathetic one-night stand, works. Miraculously, she still seems interested in Jim, though she continues to visit Tim after he wakes up and convalesces (with two broken legs) at home.
That circumstance forces Jim — under paternal duress — to fill in for Tim as an elementary school girls’ basketball team coach, and to work at the dreaded ladder factory owned by mom and dad. The factory also employs black-sheep relation Uncle Stacy (Mark Boone Jr.), who prefers to be called Evil, and deals drugs out of the oblivious parents’ business.
Disbelief must be suspended when Jim agrees to open a checking account for Evil in his own name. As a result, blackmail enters the picture when the Feds descend on Ladder Inc., arresting Sally for allegedly operating a covert drug ring. Moment by moment, “Lonesome Jim” is likeable and funny (especially whenever dealing with Evil). Its shaggy tenor recalls such ’70s mini-classics as “Rancho Deluxe” and “Slither.” As seen before, Buscemi has a real feel for this kind of novelistic character comedy.
But he can’t always ease viewers past the central trouble spot in Strouse’s sly, amiable screenplay: A profoundly inert yet peevish protagonist whose act doesn’t seem all that worth getting together. Part of the problem may lay with Affleck, who in one sense is perfectly cast, and in another might just be too passive and withdrawn an actor to make those traits as amusing, perverse or poignant as intended.
Helmer’s flair for getting the understated best out of his cast otherwise holds down the line, with Boone offhandedly hilarious, and Place lending Sally surprising layers of neatly suppressed depth.
Shot on location around Goshen, Ind., HD lensing emphasizes the monochrome dreariness of a flat Midwestern winter; all other contribs are modestly right-on. Soundtrack heavy on retro soft-rock radio classics adds to pic’s air of irony-dusted banality gone awry.