Everything about "Lonesome Jim" screams "Indie First Film." Shot on mini-DV without any regard for aesthetic polish, "Lonesome Jim" is a quintessential character study about a depressed young man retreating to his home and rediscovering his quirky family and finding love. Lacking narrative propulsion, it's mostly a showcase for its cast -- particularly leads Casey Affleck and Liv Tyler -- a nice proving ground for a director eager to show off his abilities coaching actors. Because "Lonesome Jim" is Steve Buscemi's third feature and because it marks a technical decline from his earlier efforts, I can't help but greet it with a measure of disappointment.
James C. Strouse wrote the largely autobiographical script about Jim (Affleck), who isn't lonesome so much as he's filled with melancholy and self-absorption. After several years of trying to make it in New York City, he returns to Goshen, Indiana, where his mom (Mary Kay Place) and pop (Seymour Cassel) run a ladder factory and where his brother (Kevin Corrigan) is even more fed up with his own life. Jim, who has a collection of suicidal scribes attached to his wall, isn't looking to make new personal connections, but he finds himself in an oddly endearing relationship with a beautiful nurse and single mom (Tyler).
If your name isn't Jim Jarmusch, making a film about inertia is complicated business. Affleck's Jim is one of the mopiest and most clueless main characters you're likely to see on a big screen. Speaking all of his dialogue in a high whispered monotone, Affleck has the half-grown Peter Pan thing down and while the performance isn't varied, he's a compelling enough actor that he doesn't wilt under the intimacy of Buscemi's hand-held camerawork or cinematographer Phil Parmet's unflattering cinematography.
Though Buscemi doesn't cut most of his stars any slack, Tyler somehow manages to look beautiful and flawlessly lit in every shot. There isn't any reason for her character to have any romantic interest in Affleck's sadsack loser, but using Liv Tyler as a life preserver, a flotation device for desperate and pathetic men is a standard -- see "Heavy" or "Jersey Girl." There's something about her inherent sweetness and lushness that suggests the potential for infinite pity dates.
Cassel, Place and Corrigan are playing the sort of put-upon characters they've done many times before, leading to appropriately lived-in performances. The best of the supporting cast is Mark Boone Junior ("Batman Begins") as Jim's scruffy drug-pushing uncle, a slovenly, misanthropic man who could be seen as an ultra-extreme version of Jim.
With the modest yet confident "Trees Lounge" and "Animal Factory" (as well as several strong "Sopranos" episodes) under his belt, Buscemi has established his abilities to find sympathy with these kinds of washed out characters. With "Lonesome Jim," Buscemi only seems to grasp the tone, laconic and spiked with odd moments of humor. The actual storytelling doesn't stray far from countless other indie homecoming movies, meandering along like its lead character, never finding its purpose.