Liv and Let Act

Well, now we know: Liv Tyler can act. That probably doesn't qualify as an earth-shattering revelation of the magnitude of, say, discovering life on Mars or unraveling the mystery of Stonehenge. But music-video-maiden-turned-aspiring-movie-actress Tyler is this year's "It" girl, and writer-director James Mangold's self-consciously small but well-acted debut feature film Heavy offers the first hard evidence that the coltish ingenue can do more than hit her marks and look beautiful.

Both Heavy and Stealing Beauty (which opened in South Florida earlier this month) are counting on Tyler's blossoming star power to help them find an audience. Both films introduce the guilelessly seductive womanchild into a circle of older, tireder, less attractive folks and record the impact her presence has on their lives. Director Bernardo Bertolucci tried to divert attention from Stealing Beauty's soft-core Eurotrash leanings by peppering the film with pretentious dialogue and by salting its Liv-scapes with breathtaking panoramas of the lush countryside of Tuscany. Heavy goes for a dingier, less verbose, more blue-collar vibe. If you want to catch a glimpse of Liv Tyler's breasts, steal a look at Beauty. If you want to catch a glimpse of Liv Tyler's ability to emote while fully clothed, get Heavy.

Potential summer moviegoers looking desperately for an alternative to the tyranny of special effects in Independence Day have my sympathies. There aren't many options for the postadolescent, and neither of these Tyler vehicles seems likely to become the kind of sleeper hit that, say, The Postman was last year. Heavy is one of those earnest character studies that wears its low-tech, untrendy anti-glamour like a badge. The film boils down to an updated version of 1955's Marty, the standard by which all "small" movies must be measured, particularly when they are concerned with painfully shy protagonists who fall in love and suddenly find the gumption to break out of their shells. So many second-rate imitators have, over the past four decades, ripped off Delbert Mann's acclaimed rendering of Paddy Chayevsky's brilliant, naturalistic screenplay that the conventions of the genre -- the introverted-but-sensitive leading man, the overbearing mother, the beautiful young woman who prefers the shy guy to the fly guys -- have passed into the realm of cliche. Heavy weighs in with more than its share of Martyisms, from the five-letter, two-syllable, one-word title ending in the letter y to the central plot line about the plump, bashful mama's boy who meets the soulful knockout and finally musters the resolve to untie the apron strings. Only quality ensemble acting saves Heavy from sinking under the load of its derivative story.

Tyler plays Callie, the confused nineteen-year-old college dropout who takes a job as a waitress at Pete and Dolly's, a rundown roadside tavern and pizza parlor in upstate New York. The teenage siren sinks her bounteous teeth into the part, laying bare Callie's emotional fragility, which stems in no small part from her dissatisfaction with her vacuous, guitar-strumming boyfriend Jeff (Lemonhead Evan Dando proves a pleasant surprise, holding his own even in the parts where he doesn't sing). With a sad smile and subtle mood shifts, Tyler quietly suggests what a nice girl like Callie is doing in a dump like Pete and Dolly's. Tyler may not yet pose a threat to Meryl Streep, but she has a knack for seeming genuinely grounded, accessible, and down-to-earth even as the camera caresses her remarkable face. That may not seem like a big deal, but look how hard Paul Newman has had to work to convince audiences to see past his legendary blue eyes.

Dolly (Shelley Winters) still runs the joint that bears her name, although her ex-husband Pete, a long-distance trucker, hit the road years ago. Winters, who was a looker herself when she was Tyler's age, has in recent years accepted a series of roles -- such as Roseanne's grandmother on TV -- that have typecast her as a loud, overweight, obnoxious matron. This time out, however, she turns down the volume and registers a touching portrayal of a lovesick woman whose hubby's betrayal has fueled her determination to dote on her son.

Equally impressive is Deborah Harry as Dolly's long-time waitress Delores, a battle-scarred floozy who relies on booze and fresh bedmates to drown her disappointment in men and to break up the monotony of her life. Delores feels threatened by Callie's fresh-faced beauty and enthusiasm, and immediately notices how the younger woman's presence captivates not only the regular customers, but also Dolly's chubby, tongue-tied son Victor (scene-stealing Pruitt Taylor Vince, whose biggest previous role was as Paul Newman's wool-hat-bedecked, eating-machine sidekick in Nobody's Fool). You never believe that Callie would really fall for Victor -- he's not only homely, he's so buttoned-up, repressed, and overcome with ardor that he can barely muster a word of conversation. But Tyler projects a depth and sensitivity that make you believe she'd quickly tire of a garden-variety pretty boy and that she might, in a weak moment on a bad day, be confused enough to give Victor a shot if he could somehow muster the nerve to make a move. But he can't. (She'd encounter no such hesitation from, for example, a middle-age movie reviewer.) Maybe Callie sees something in Victor, but writer-director Mangold has so overwritten Victor's muteness and social ineptitude that we can't understand the attraction, other than that Victor isn't Jeff. For all Callie knows, Victor could be a serial killer.

But, of course, that's where the Marty syndrome asserts itself. Mangold doesn't bother to show us what draws Callie to Victor; he presumes that audiences have been conditioned to take it on faith that the ugly duckling is always a nicer guy than the hunk. Thankfully, Pruitt Taylor Vince, whose quivering eyeballs add jittery quirkiness to an intense, baleful gaze, fills in many of the blanks with subtlety and nuance that suggest Victor's untapped strength of character even as Mangold's screenplay glosses over it. Vince's well-padded frame and thinning hair ensure that he'll never share Tyler's dilemma of convincing audiences to look past physical charms. To all outward appearances he resembles the quintessential schlumpy homebody Victor is supposed to be. To his credit the actor, unlike his director, isn't content to stop there. Vince makes you feel the burn of terminal timidity as he stumbles and stutters and struggles to work up the nerve to say something, anything, to Tyler's Callie. It's the finest performance in a movie bursting with them. The tired, overly sincere, and determinedly simple story line is a big obstacle to overcome, but quality acting from some surprising corners finally tips the scale in Heavy's favor.

Heavy.
Written and directed by James Mangold; with Liv Tyler, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Deborah Harry, Shelley Winters, Joe Grifasi, and Evan Dando.

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