When Lonesome Jim begins, the title character (Casey Affleck), is 27, broke, and back in Indiana after an unsuccessful attempt to forge a writing career in New York City. He knocks on his parents’ door and once inside, collapses in a heap in their kitchen, sobbing as he begs for a glass of water. Caught in a battle between autonomy and dependence, Jim needs time to get back on his feet, but the prospects that Indiana and his parents have to offer fill him with dread.
Lonesome Jim imagines Jim’s dilemma with flashes of insight and moments of excruciating humor, but it does not live up to the promise Buscemi demonstrated in his stellar second feature, Trees Lounge. That film, about another out-of-work character struggling with an identity crisis, was made 10 years ago, and benefited from Buscemi’s sharp script and sympathetic performance; here, he’s working with an uneven screenplay by James Strouse and Affleck’s wooden acting.
Buscemi’s directorial strengths are his eye for detail, economy of expression, and wry humor, all on display in two standout scenes in Lonesome Jim. The first occurs when Jim’s loving mother, Sally (Mary Kay Place), barges into the bathroom with clean towels as he’s soaking in bubbleless water. She’s so happy to see him, she sits on the edge of the tub and gives him a hug. Awkwardly, Jim wraps one arm around her while keeping his other hand protectively over his balls. The quietly funny moment reveals the boundless intensity of Sally’s devotion as well as her son’s desire to reciprocate her affection without compromising his “manhood.”
Another such moment concerns Jim’s older brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), who coaches a girls’ elementary school basketball team. Divorced, 32 years old, and still living with his parents, Tim is nearly mute with disappointment. But he musters up the energy to give the girls this bit of advice: “Don’t shoot unless you’re absolutely sure you can make it.” The girls end up passing the ball back and forth between them because no one has enough confidence to aim for the basket — they’ve never made a basket, let alone won a game. This absurdly pitiful scene underlines that Tim’s own ambitions have been compromised by his fear of failure.
It’s too bad there aren’t more subtle moments like these in the movie. Jim’s romantic relationship with Anika (Liv Tyler, who seems to be making a career of saving emotionally crippled Affleck brothers characters) dominates the film, and seems rote. A beautiful nurse and single mother, Anika meets Jim in a bar. Tyler’s porcelain complexion is the only bright spot in this otherwise murky-looking movie, but Anika is a convenience. No matter where Jim turns, she is right there, around the corner, or waiting outside in the car. She’s either an earthbound guardian angel or the Midwest’s most voluptuously lipped stalker.
What she sees in Jim is even more of a mystery. He’s pathologically self-centered, incapable of action, and frequently mean. When Sally asks him what she and his dad did to make their kids so unhappy, he says, “Maybe some people just weren’t meant to be parents.” She crumbles. Eventually, Jim apologizes to his mother in a heartfelt letter, the one time we see any evidence of his literary talents. As the letter shows Jim’s continuing need to keep his distance from his mother even as he tries to connect with her, it also leaves their reconciliation off screen.
What we do see is Jim’s effort to reconcile with the other woman in his life, in a scene characterized by a too-easy metaphor. Alluding to The Graduate, it plays more like Jerry Maguire, a movie that Jim would certainly hate.