During the MTV Music Awards this year, Dennis Miller cracked that a band he was introducing was "so hip and alternative that Steve Buscemi tried out for a part in it." Buscemi is to American independent film of the '90s what Peter Lorre was to wartime noir--the signature character actor. Ever since he played Mr. Pink, the most sensible of the Reservoir Dogs, he's been the man that film-school weenies everywhere have dreamed of hiring for their debut features. But Buscemi's own debut as a writer-director, the low-key, slice-of-life drama called Trees Lounge, puts to shame some of the enfants terribles for whom he's worked--at least those few who are capable of shame.
That is not because Trees Lounge is a great film. But it's a pretty good one, and it's good in ways that many of the tyros find dauntingly elusive: It's believable. It relies not on visual flash or left-field plotting but on gradually developed character and coherent incident. If in the end it doesn't feel like it's added up to anything terribly revelatory, it does leave one with a sense of authentic experience.
Buscemi plays Tommy, a youngish, unemployed auto mechanic. He has lots of time and little money, and the Trees Lounge is the Long Island neighborhood bar where he spends most of both. If he falls asleep in a booth, the bartender (Carol Kane) has to wake him for closing time, and even then he'll demand a last call. Under the opening credits, Buscemi shows us a stone-faced old man (Bronson Dudley) sitting silently at the bar, drinking. He hardly speaks, but appears throughout, providing a clear picture of the world where Tommy's headed.
Tommy has recently broken up with his longtime girlfriend (Elizabeth Bracco), who is pregnant, possibly with his child, but is living with the boss (Anthony LaPaglia) who fired him. When Tommy's Uncle Al (Seymour Cassel), a beloved ice cream vendor, dies suddenly, Tommy takes over his route, and finds trouble named Debbie, his ex-girlfriend's niece who starts hanging around in the ice cream truck and bumming cigarettes from him. Debbie is played by Chloe Sevigny, as startlingly good here as she was in Kids, her debut film.
A bevy of characters drifts in and out of the narrative--played by an impressive roster of actors. Daniel Baldwin and Mimi Rogers play Debbie's parents; Mark Boone Junior is Tommy's dull, ponderous friend Mike; Michael Buscemi, Steve's brother, plays Tommy's woebegone brother; and Debi Mazar, Suzanne Shepherd, Samuel L. Jackson, Rockets Redglare and Eszter Balint add atmosphere in smaller roles.
Helpful as are all of these performers and others, writer-director Buscemi keeps the focus on star Buscemi, and that isn't a mistake. His weary, cadaverously gaunt face, nasal voice and matter-of-fact manner are characterful and touching. There's a bit of irony in Buscemi's "alternative" rep, since his best and most remembered roles have been as levelheaded, practical-minded types: the desperate Mr. Pink in Dogs, the harried movie director in Living in Oblivion, the revolted sidekick of the title character in Desperado, the saner of the two kidnapers in Fargo.
Tommy of Trees Lounge belongs in this company, even though he's a shiftless, fairly useless fellow. Tommy's likable because, as he points out early on, he at least knows he's an asshole. To his great credit, Buscemi takes no pains to disprove this opinion; he merely contrasts Tommy favorably with other characters who don't know what they are.
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Because Buscemi offers no more than the most tentative hope that Tommy might still have some growing up to do, Trees Lounge is ultimately a rather sad film. But it isn't a deep downer. Buscemi is on to a trick of the most charming drunks: Avoid self-pity at all costs.
Directed by Steve Buscemi; with Steve Buscemi, Mark Boone Junior, Chloe Sevigny, Anthony LaPaglia, Elizabeth Bracco, Carol Kane, Mimi Rogers, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Buscemi.
(At Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.)