Lonesome Jim can claim the dubious achievement of proving Leo Tolstoy’s most famous adage wrong: Each unhappy family is not necessarily unhappy in its own way. Sometimes, an unhappy family is a collection of glass-nearly-empty types whose miseries, while acute, are so vaguely defined as to be indistinguishable from simple indigestion to anyone other than the sufferer. All too often, they’re the creation of a novice indie writer or director who feels such intense personal identification with his fictions of alienation that he forgets to convince the viewer why compassion is called for.
Clearly, for instance, something is troubling the title Jim (Casey Affleck, speaking in a sad sack’s monotone) in this mouse-brown specimen of a 2005 Sundance entry. Because he couldn’t ”make it” in New York (completing a Sundance screenplay? writing gags for The Onion?), Jim has taken the bus back to his claustrophobic family home in rural Indiana, where he’s greeted by a suicidally depressed brother (Kevin Corrigan). Dad (Seymour Cassel) is an angry, taciturn owner of a small factory. Mom (Mary Kay Place) is a suffocatingly trite chatterer who treats her sons as if they were boys with runny noses rather than men with death wishes. The factory, where Jim is put to work, is photographed with all the widget gloom of the doll plant in Steven Soderbergh’s moody drama Bubble, but none of Soderbergh’s wise eye for composition.
There’s nothing for Jim to do but sulk in a local bar on the corner of Nowheresville and Stuckforlife. And that’s where he meets Anika (Liv Tyler), a nurse as improbably pretty and available as she is attracted to Jim’s brand of emotional catatonia. Maybe life in Blowyourbrainsout, Ind., isn’t so bad after all.
Lonesome Jim was directed by the talented actor Steve Buscemi, who made a fine directorial debut in 1996 with the small-scale mood piece Trees Lounge, but who is stymied here by the inertia of his material. The screenplay is a debut for James C. Strouse, who set the story in his hometown of Goshen, Ind., heck, in his parents’ real factory. Whether Anika represents wish or autobiographical reality is a topic for bar debate among anyone with emotional energy left to lift a beer bottle.