' Cinema Romantico: Lonesome Jim

Monday, April 03, 2006

Lonesome Jim

-"What's wrong with you?"
- "Chronic despair."

Ah yes. "Lonesome Jim" is a film you will loathe or will nod at and say, "Yeah, I get that guy". I fall in the latter camp. If only because the main character is a wannabe' writer who probably drinks a little too much, doesn't have a great deal of luck with women and is a bit confused in matters of life. There is a moment early on where Jim explains to a girl he is a dog walker but he also writes. Her reply? "I write, too". Perhaps only someone like me could truly understand why something like that is so freaking hilarious (in fact, I was the only one laughing in the theater at said line) but it is. Trust me.

Jim (an understated Casey Affleck) has returned to his home in Indiana from New York City more because he has no money and nowhere else to go than for love of family. His parents are a classic American married couple - his mother wears a forced smile 24 hours a day and the father seems to be forever puttering around in the basement, though no one really knows what he's doing. It brought to mind a quote of Robbie Graham's from the brilliant but criminally short-lived sitcom It's Like, You Know - "My mom's up by forty points in the fourth quarter and they're both content to run out the clock".

His brother is the coach of a girl's youth basketball team that has not scored a single point the entire season, let alone won a game. He has also attempted suicide on several occasions. In short, he is even more screwed than his brother.

Yes, you've seen this plot before many times. No, it's not the most original concept in the world. But a film like this lives and dies by its ability to sit back and observe people and the rythms of day to day life. And this movie - directed by the famed supporting actor Steve Buscemi and shot on digital film - observes well.

Jim begins a tentative relationship with a local nurse Anika (Liv Tyler). The first time he brings her home he shows her the memorial on his bedroom wall to writers to took their own lives ("she put her head in an oven....he shot himself....."). But the masterstroke of the movie is allowing it to take its entire length to simply show Jim and Anika (and listen to Jim's mother pronounce her name - it's a note perfect piece of characterization) taking the very first step in their relationship. That sort of thing is nearly non-existent anymore as most films now prefer to go from the first step to a full-fledged relationship over the course of a lone montage. Ugh.

There is a bizarre subplot involving the mother going to jail courtesy of Jim's uncle. The whole thing feels ungainly and seems to have no reason to exist other than for Jim to actually stand up and do something good for his mother. It seems that could have happened through a much more true-to-life and less weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird plot device. But oh well.

One of my favorite quotes concerning cinema comes from Cesare Zavvatini – one of the primary filmmakers behind the Italian neo-realism movement – who said, “(People seeing) themselves on the screen, performing their daily actions…can help them to fill up a void.” And I find some common ground with Jim. Not complete and total common ground, mind you. I've never tried to drive a car into a tree. My family life is a million times better. I don't necessarily suffer from chronic despair but, oh, I've had my fair share of despair. As have we all. And I know a few things about being a guy in his late 20's who hopes to be a writer but isn't sure if that hope actually fits into the real world.

Last night I rented and re-watched "Elizabethtown" - which I'm now convinced is one of the most unfairly crapped-on movies of recent times. At least from my point of view. Maybe the common movie-goer and movie critics don't have nervous breakdowns or take road trips or make mix tapes or crave all-night phone calls with someone of the opposite sex that end in meeting up to see the sunrise or understand the "equal importance" of teaching their child about "Abraham Lincoln and Ronnie Van Zant" (though in my case it would be Thomas Jefferson and Bruce Springsteen, but never mind).

Seeing the title character of "Lonesome Jim" and Drew and Claire of "Elizabethtown" is like seeing a little slice of me. And like Zavattini said that helps fill up a void. And that makes me feel a little bit better.

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