AUTEUR DE FARCE

The actor's nightmare is of performing in a play for which he has no memory of rehearsing or learning lines. For a movie director, the equivalent nightmare must be presiding over a set on which every imaginable disaster occurs, while attempting to shoot a difficult scene on a tight schedule. For the makers of low-budget independent films, this scenario is a reality at least as often as it's a dream.

Out of these anxieties, Tom DiCillo has fashioned Living in Oblivion, which, despite its daunting title, is actually a cheeky comedy about the making of low-rent art-house cinema. As is almost always the case in films about filmmaking, the director is the hero--a harried but honest artist, so caught up in the crazy process of getting his vision onto film that his sleep is haunted by dreams like those described above. Just once, it would be fun to see a movie about moviemaking in which the director wasn't a put-upon mensch, as in Living in Oblivion or Day for Night, nor a godlike enigma, as in The Stunt Man, but simply a calculating careerist hack.

The star of DiCillo's film is the cadaverous Steve Buscemi, a growing counterculture icon best known as Mr. Pink, one of the more sensible of the Reservoir Dogs. He's sensible again as Nick, the long-suffering director of a tortured psychodrama being filmed in a dingy studio in New York with a minuscule crew. We see Nick struggling to keep his artsy little project on track in the face of the egos of his stars and the tempestuous romantic troubles between his power-hungry assistant director (Danielle Von Zerneck) and his brooding, leather-clad cinematographer (the amusing Dermot Mulroney). All sorts of farcical technical foul-ups plague the shoot. A dwarf actor (Peter Dinklage) gives Nick a quite deserved dressing-down about the tackiness of using a dwarf as a shortcut to make a dream sequence more bizarre. The hapless director is even subjected to an unexpected visit to the set by his mother.

DiCillo cheats a little on the construction of the film, using an unnecessarily convoluted dream-within-a-dream structure. This allows him to broaden the visual scope while maintaining a unity of time, but it also weakens the sense that we're getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse. But his dialogue is funny and rings authentic without sounding like smug, knowing insider's humor. Most important, the cast is excellent. Buscemi is warm and accessible in his leading-man role, and Catherine Keener is charming as the distressed leading lady, who is also Nick's tentative love interest. Mulroney, Von Zerneck and the minor players give affectionate caricatures of gonzo-film-techie types.

The consistently underrated James Le Gros plays Nick's empty-headed leading man, a good-looking rising star with just enough clout to play odious power games with his director and co-stars. It is whispered that Le Gros' performance is a send-up of the consistently overrated leading man of DiCillo's first feature, the 1992 indie Johnny Suede--a good-looking, then-rising star by the name of Brad Pitt.

 
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