MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Oblivion’: Bad and Beautiful of Indies
“Living in Oblivion” is a crooked valentine to the independent film world, a bemused and caustic billet-doux to the boys and girls who don’t quite have the clout to figure in “The Player” but end up addicted to the business anyhow.
As the cinematographer of Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and the director of the Brad Pitt-starring “Johnny Suede,” writer-director Tom DiCillo has certainly been there. And he has turned his experience into a clever and consistently funny inside-movies comedy, a witty revenge against the dream factory, low-budget division, that won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Starring some of the best actors in the independent world, including Steve Buscemi, James Le Gros and Dermot Mulroney, “Oblivion” is an intricately constructed film-within-a-film, gathering in one small place every problem, both conceivable and otherwise, a struggling film might encounter.
Originally concocted as a half-hour short to showcase actress Catherine Keener (the co-star of “Suede” and Mulroney’s wife), “Oblivion” has a quirky three-part structure in which film, reality and fantasy double back on one another. Each section involves a single scene that put-upon director Nick Reve (Buscemi), the kind of intense young cineaste who has a poster for Fritz Lang’s “M” on his bedroom wall, is trying desperately to commit to film.
The first section, which approximates the half-hour short, is the most ingeniously structured, with color (for the film-within-a-film, also called “Living in Oblivion”) alternating with black-and-white. As take succeeds take, with problems piling up like cordwood, we meet the movie gang, in many ways more compelling than the material they’re struggling with.
Nicole (Keener), whose big “Ellen Talks to Mom” scene is being shot, wants to be taken seriously as an actress but is universally known as the girl who had a celebrated shower scene with Richard Gere. And her confidence isn’t helped by overhearing crew members cattily ripping her to bits.
Not initially prone to doubt is Wolf (Mulroney), the self-absorbed director of photography who lives with forceful assistant director Wanda (Danielle Von Zerneck), and, as his leather vest, beret and eventual eyepatch indicate, fancies himself the artist on the set.
The funniest member of this team, though he doesn’t know it, is Nicole’s co-star, Chad Palomino (Le Gros), who appears in the second section. A Hollywood player set to star next as “the sexy serial killer Winona Ryder shacks up with,” Palomino is a fatuous oaf slumming in the indie world who drives everyone crazy with his womanizing, his improvisations (“Just stop me if I’m out of line”) and his scattershot flattery. “I want to learn from you,” he tells Nick earnestly. “You’re the genius.” This is easily the most pointed portrait in the film, as well as the most humorous, fueling speculation at Sundance that DiCillo had drawn just a bit on his previous experience with Brad Pitt.
“Oblivion’s” third section has poor Nick trying to shoot a dream sequence while coping with a troublesome dwarf and a rambunctious smoke machine. It’s not quite up to the standard set by the first two, but it does provide an opportunity to nicely wrap things up.
Though “Living in Oblivion” may sound like a one-joke movie, the pleasure of the endeavor is that it has no trouble holding your interest without feeling repetitive. Mark it down to the excellence of the acting, including the smallest roles, and the amusing and accurate way the ambience of bargain-basement filmmaking is captured.
This realism extends from the physical look of the production to movie terminology to, most important, the psychology of the business. Everyone in the production, from the gaffer to the director, is to varying degrees ambitious, egocentric, rife with insecurities, in constant need of reassurance and eager to push his or her own agenda. But, hey, it’s only a movie. Isn’t it?
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language. Times guidelines: The tone is comic nightmare rather than hostile. A brief moment of nudity.
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‘Living in Oblivion’ Steve Buscemi: Nick Catherine Keener: Nicole Dermot Mulroney: Wolf Danielle Von Zerneck: Wanda James Le Gros: Chad Palomino Rica Martens: Cora Peter Dinklage: Tito Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Tom DiCillo. Producers Michael Griffiths, Marcus Viscidi. Executive producers Hilary Gilford, Frank Van Zerneck, Robert Sertner. Screenplay DiCillo. Cinematographer Frank Prinzi. Editor Camilla Toniolo. Costumes Ellen Lutter. Music Jim Farmer. Production design Therese Deprez. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
* Playing in selected theaters.