Entitlement, sad sackery and ennui seem to be the defining characteristics of that spiritual dead zone that exists between ages 25 and 30 these days. Consider Jim (Casey Affleck) the perfect spokesman for his people. A self-proclaimed creative type/writer who never manages to be creative or write anything, the 27-year-old shuffles home to Indiana after discovering Random House does not hand you a publishing contract the day you arrive in the Big Apple. So Jim finds himself back at home with Mom (Mary Kay Place) and Dad (Seymour Casesl) possessed of no will to live but less desire to pull the “goodbye, cruel world” card.
Right about now, “Lonesome Jim” is starting to sound like a grim, tedious, moody affair. And, truth be told, that’s sort of what it is for about 70 minutes. But there’s one excellent reason to stick around, and his name is Steve Buscemi. (Tempted as I am to repeat my Steve Buscemi rule, I will abstain.) As an actor, he’s got a talent for finding quirks that make his characters memorable. When he’s directing, he uses the camera to find those idiosyncracies, insightful lines and quiet moments. Buscemi doesn’t rush his actors or his movie, so things unfold without much fanfare. The slow pacing isn’t for everyone, but “Lonesome Jim” rewards anyone patient enough to look closer with a laconic but affecting character study.
The character in question, Jim, is tailor-made for Casey Affleck, a budding actor who deserves no comparison to his more famous brother. Much like Buscemi, he underacts religiously, almost to the point of seeming catatonic. Which, you see, is the point — Jim is no fun to be around. He believes he’s a writer, but he barely tries and still seems put off by his lack of success. (Apparently he missed that whole “you miss 90 percent of the shots you don’t take” movement.) Jim even manages to see himself as superior to his family, particularly his divorced brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan), whom he calls a “goddamn tragedy,” and his manic-or-just-really-cheerful? mother, whose $20 bills he lifts from her purse. Even meeting Anika (Liv Tyler), a kind-hearted single mother who seems to like him, doesn’t seem to affect him that much. Anything less than abject misery is unthinkable to him. Somehow, though, he starts to change so gradually it’s almost invisible.
And here’s where the infamous Buscemi touch comes in. He makes Jim’s move from mournful lump to human being subtle but blackly funny. This guy needs outside forces to help him grow, and Buscemi gives him a whole mess of odd personalities who facilitate this change. Anika, of course, is key. When Jim’s relationship with her starts to grow a pulse, he asks her: “There’s so many fun and cheery people in the world. Don’t you think you’d be better off with one of them?” That she’s influenced him to ask himself that question is progress, a move from self-absorption to self-awareness. Tyler plays Anika not as a doormat but as a helper who sees potential in Jim.
Other characters make “Lonesome Jim” an insightful little movie. Take Jim’s mom Sally (Place, always wonderful), whose cheerful front belies her own unhappiness. Note her weary reaction to Jim’s decision to move to New Orleans — her line delivery is note-perfect. As Jim’s drug-dealing uncle “Evil,” Mark Boone Jr. serves up most of the film’s humor, the best being his conviction that hookers are cheaper than girlfriends. He tries to get Jim to loosen up, but mainly he sets events in motion that force the slacker to wake the hell up. Affleck, mop-topped and sporting perpetual facial scruff, gives us small glimpses into these changes. He’s all about facial expressions, and here they are so illusive as to rival Zach Braff’s in “Garden State.” Jim’s not the same guy in the end that he was in the beginning, and Affleck’s transition is practically seamless.
And speaking of the end: It will enrage some but enlighten others. Simple, ephemeral and barely hopeful (or is it?) — it’s classic Buscemi. He pares “Lonesome Jim” to the bone, and that’s why it leaves a lasting impression.