Independent Filmmaking, Straight Up

Tommy Basilio (Steve Buscemi) lost his pregnant girlfriend Theresa (Elizabeth Bracco) to his best friend and former boss Rob (Anthony LaPaglia). To add insult to injury, Rob fired Tommy from the garage where both men worked as mechanics because Tommy "borrowed" $1500 from the till and gambled it away. Tommy, a master of self-delusion, tries to pick up the pieces of his disintegrating life while drowning his sorrows at a neighborhood dive called Trees Lounge, home of a motley collection of losers and misfits united by their craving for the comfortable numbing of alcohol.

Like James Mangold's Heavy, Trees Lounge is a simple, beautifully acted film set primarily in a small-town tavern. Indie movie superstar actor Buscemi, who makes his writing and directing debut with the film, surrounds himself with a cast of extraordinarily talented but little-known colleagues like Mark Boone Junior, Bronson Dudley, Rockets Redglare, Daniel Baldwin, and Chloe Sevigny. Heavy felt small and claustrophobic, restricting its scope to a half-dozen characters whose behavior echoed the Fifties classic Marty a little too closely for comfort; Buscemi allows Trees Lounge to sprawl over nearly two dozen interconnected lives, thereby giving it the texture of a larger film on a small-movie budget. The bug-eyed writer-director-star's affection for his characters and empathy for their plights draws you in. His sly humor glides along, making it all the more shattering when Tommy finally comes face to face with himself. Buscemi mixes a jigger of John Cassavetes with a finger of Robert Altman and garnishes the cocktail with a slice of Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend.

Episodic (at best) in structure, Trees Lounge doesn't so much follow a linear plot as it sort of lurches to and fro like Tommy after a few belts of his beloved Wild Turkey. The down-on-his-luck protagonist vainly attempts to land another mechanic's job (despite being unable to keep his own jalopy running), argues with his father at his uncle's funeral, struggles to pick up a babe before the booze the two have consumed renders one of them unconscious, accepts temporary employment driving the deceased uncle's ice cream truck, and entertains a dangerous liaison with a seventeen-year-old girl whose burly, hot-tempered father will kill Tommy if he finds out. But mostly Tommy parks his ass in Trees Lounge and drinks. The lazy plot won't make anyone forget Hamlet, but it provides enough of a framework for Buscemi and his cast mates to flesh out fascinating, compelling, working-class characters who all feel like real people. Most of the film's conflict arises from Tommy's battles within himself; he knows he's become a first-class screwup, but his refusal to acknowledge his weaknesses prevents Tommy from halting the slide.

Buscemi's future looks as promising as Tommy's does hopeless. His writing sparkles with understated wit, and his dissection of a barfly's descent never feels pat or condescending. The filmmaker's command of the celluloid lexicon makes a strong impression; Buscemi's gifts for characterization and light comedy mark him as formidable a talent behind the camera as he is in front of it. Trees Lounge the fictitious bar may be a god-forsaken hole-in-the-wall, but the movie's gifted writer-director makes patronizing the joint an unforgettable experience. Bottoms up.

Trees Lounge.
Written and directed by Steve Buscemi; with Steve Buscemi, Mark Boone Junior, Carol Kane, Anthony LaPaglia, Chloe Sevigny, Daniel Baldwin, and Bronson Dudley.

 
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