Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Barfly

A boozy ice cream vendor romances a sweet young thing in Steve Buscemi's directorial debut.

Published March 29, 1999 8:38PM (EST)

"Trees Lounge" is what indie films are meant to be and so seldom are, which is to say that it possesses the right kind of uncertainty. That uncertainty isn't a matter of Steve Buscemi's not knowing how to shape scenes or how to direct actors or where to place the camera. Buscemi, who makes his debut as writer-director here, doesn't present ineptitude as the alternative to Hollywood slickness and dishonesty. Relying more on the exploration of character and mood than story, Buscemi has faith that his open-ended approach will take him where he wants to go.

"Trees Lounge" is named for the bar in the working-class Long Island town where the movie is set. It's one of those little joints that looks asleep from the outside -- not a dive, just a place grown so comfortable with its own dated shabbiness it's been content to let time pass it by. The Ink Spots are still on the jukebox, and some of the regulars, like Bronson Dudley's Billy, look as though they might have been there when those songs were new on the Hit Parade -- when there was such a thing as "Your Hit Parade." We never see Billy coming into the bar. He's always just there, in his usual spot, staring straight ahead. The bartenders know when to refill his glass and how much to subtract from the bills in front of him. He doesn't have to say a word; a shift of his eyes is enough to tell a bartender he's pouring 'em a little light. But it's not just barflies who inhabit the place. Softball leagues pile in to cap off Sunday afternoon games, and people in their 20s -- who, without admitting it to themselves, long ago gave up the idea of moving someplace else -- breeze in on Saturday nights as if they still believe the town is capable of showing them a good time.

Buscemi plays Tommy, a man in his 30s who still sports a boy's name and who, like his preferred watering hole, is letting time pass him by. Tommy was fired from his job as a mechanic when he pilfered from the till and then watched as his boss (Anthony LaPaglia) stole away his girlfriend of eight years (Elizabeth Bracco). Now she's pregnant, and Tommy, making halfhearted attempts to find a job but mainly drinking or sleeping the day away in the room he keeps above the lounge, feels even more at sea. Without realizing it, he's preparing a place for himself at Trees just like Billy's -- he's slipping into the role of barroom fixture, the guy who, like the songs on the box or the signs on the wall, has been there as long as anyone can remember.

"Trees Lounge" doesn't groove on a loser's vibe, on the grungy dead-end lives of the barflies. It isn't hopeless. Buscemi is true to the milieu, but he and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler are also alive to its suburban setting in a way that's unique to indie films (where suburbia is usually a repository for everything stifling and dull). There is an almost delicate, crystalline quality to the summer sunlight of the daytime scenes. As Tommy cruises for customers in his ice-cream truck at dinnertime, a friend suggests he take a break, saying, "Nobody will be out again until 7." The combination of that line and the late-afternoon sunshine conjures up suburban summer evenings where the shouts of kids playing sound like a chant to hold the darkness at bay.

For a while, it seemed as if Steve Buscemi the actor intended to coast on a mixture of attitude and unconventionality, on his own pop-eyed rattiness. I don't know what's changed, but he's become one of the character actors I most look forward to seeing. Buscemi provided a woolly, unpredictable streak amid the inhuman mechanisms of "Con Air" and "Armageddon." "Trees Lounge" proves him to be a wonderful actors' director. There isn't a bad performance in the large cast, and Buscemi's own is his best to date. He doesn't make excuses for Tommy or beg sympathy. Tommy is a screw-up, a cadger, more willing to wallow in his directionlessness than to worry about it. He's not really a bad guy, though, and Buscemi lends just the right degree of poignancy to the way Tommy draws on the good will he's got left as he's slowly sealing himself off from life. When he comes back from the men's room to find the woman he had planned to take home (Debi Mazar) passed out in a booth, he crawls into the seat across from her, takes her hand and conks out. At times, the whole movie might be contained in the spark of life dimming in Buscemi's eyes.

Or in the light that seems to catch and kindle in Chlok Sevigny's. As Debbie, the 17-year-old niece of Tommy's ex, Sevigny could be any girl you see hanging out in a suburban park or mall, until you notice that something in her is holding itself aloof. Debbie is still hanging out with her girlfriends, still visiting the same haunts, but she's too adventurous to be satisfied with them much longer. So it's poignant that Debbie hooks up with Tommy, who can't do anything about his own dissatisfaction. Sevigny is graced with one of those open adolescent faces that registers every bit of hurt, every disappointment, yet registers it without judgment or accusation. When Buscemi frames her in close-up, a little stoned as her bob of hair sways to an old soul tune, Sevigny seems to stand for the unjaded delight that has escaped Tommy.

Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do!" was about how familiar songs can seem endlessly fresh. "Trees Lounge," the work of another actor making an impressive directing debut, is also about finding something new in the familiar -- something terrible. As Tommy sits at the bar in the long, long shot that closes the film with the Ink Spots' "I Understand" once again playing on the lounge jukebox, he seems trapped in the grooves of that vocal group's slightly mournful harmonies. He understands he's found what he was halfheartedly searched for: the place he belongs.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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