The new American Dream no longer involves being married and owning a huge house full of giggling children. Rather, it’s about hitting your 20s, and being able to leave the nest permanently without ever having to move back with your tail between your legs. Lonesome Jim is a witty take on a familiar story in this day and age: Jim (Casey Affleck) escapes his home in rural Indiana to pursue a life in New York. The fun expires by age 27, as he finds himself back on his parents’ porch, out of money and looking for a safe haven to have a nervous breakdown.
When he returns home, his mom and dad (Mary Kay Place and Seymour Cassel) don’t ask too many questions or express disappointment. After all, their other 32-year-old son Tim (Kevin Corrigan) is living at home, divorced, and prone to ‘accidents’ that leave him in and out of hospitals. While he heals following his latest car-slamming-into-tree episode, Jim is forced to take over his job at the family’s factory, and coach a young, inept girls’ basketball team. The only thing keeping him from hanging himself in the nearest closet is a pretty single-mother he meets in a bar (Liv Tyler), who desires his company, despite his self-proclaimed “chronic despair” and lovemaking shortcomings. Maybe she is one of those loser-magnets that are gabbed about in Seventeen Magazine.
Jim is not a perfect specimen of human dignity, but he is relatable to a generation of stunted adolescents who have trouble transitioning into adulthood. He is far from a classy guy, or someone deserving a respite from the dark cloud looming overhead. Instead, he behaves like a miserable anti-hero that mopes around and treats his kind-hearted, doting mother carelessly. (When she asks what she could have done to make him happier, he responds, “Maybe some people just shouldn’t be parents”). The script, by newcomer James C. Strouse based on his own life, is full of droll one-liners that cause you to laugh shortly before wincing at their poor taste.
Lonesome Jim deals with dreary subject matter, but is laced with inappropriate and funny dark humor. Casey Affleck brings a genuine, raw quality to the film, showing that perhaps his big brother has been unfairly hogging the spotlight all these years. Steve Buscemi, directing his third feature, shoots the picture with a grainy-home movie quality, to accentuate the truth of the situation buried beneath the eccentric overtones.
Unfortunately, these tones tend to randomly shift, keeping it from being a bleak comedy that delivers throughout. It doesn’t work when the film tries to cash in emotionally on things it had us laughing at previously. A preposterous drug-bust storyline involving the film’s most likeable character seems better suited for a campier movie, and the cop-out ending feels forced and incredibly trite. There are great moments in the film and it is often an enjoyable watch, but when it falls down, it has a hard time getting back up. In a way that clumsiness works, since failing and attempting to recover is what Lonesome Jim is all about.