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Twenty Bucks (1993)

As a kid, I wondered about the history and eventual fate of my allowance money. I’m talking about the actual currency — the $1 or $5 bills Dad would mock-grudgingly hand over every Friday. Paper money of my own was still novel then, and I liked the idea that hundreds, probably thousands of other people from across the country, had handled these same bills.

Twenty Bucks, a 1993 indie film newly released to DVD, takes this idea and runs with it. Set in Minneapolis, Minnesota, it connects multiple stories by way of a single $20 bill, passed from hand to hand over several days. With this framing device, the film works more like a short story collection than a straight-ahead narrative — think Slacker, Magnolia or Robert Altman’s large-ensemble surveys — as the bill lands in a police evidence room, a dead man’s wallet, a stripper’s g-string, and, eventually, inside a fish. This “anthology approach” suggests an interest in lateral thinking and movement. Twenty Bucks takes this idea a step further by overlapping the stories, creating a sense of serendipity or maybe fate.

Sadly, Twenty Bucks was lost in another sort of drift, when it was unable to find decent distribution after wowing the cinerati and getting nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. “It didn’t fit onto any category,” Rosenfeld says in the DVD commentary. “It was sort of in between the cracks. That was good for me, in that it’s what I wanted to do. But it’s not necessarily good for the distributor, because it’s so much easier to sell a type, a genre.”

That’s a shame, because this is a cool little movie with an improbably sterling cast. The DVD’s making-of featurettes disclose some reasons for this, including its odd pedigree: the original script was actually written in 1935 by Endre Bohem. His son Leslie found it laying around, spun it through several more drafts, and got it produced with the help of Karen Murphy (This is Spinal Tap, David Byrne’s True Stories). Bohem explains that his father worked during the old studio system, when studios kept stables of actors under contract, and anthology scripts provided numerous, relatively meaty parts.

In the early 1990s, Twenty Bucks updated this model in the free-agent era. Because the script had so many good parts, it attracted many of the day’s best talent. Just check out the roll call: Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Shue, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy, Christopher Lloyd, Linda Hunt, Spaulding Gray, a pre-Friends David Schwimmer, and a lengthy cameo by Ms. Gladys Knight (no Pips, though). The cast alone makes the movie thoroughly watchable.

The stories themselves are hit-and-miss, as is the case with many an anthology. The best passages are marvels of economy, such as the story of the stripper (Melora Walters) who moonlights as a funeral home director. Other sections feel too obviously assembled: the rich matron who rolls the $20 to snort coke comes onscreen right after the homeless family who spends it on bulk food. This kind of conspicuous commentary breaks the spell, and the tonal shifts occasionally suggest a screenplay-by-committee. (Bohem says the script went through 17 drafts.)

By far the most compelling story stars Christopher Lloyd and Steve Buscemi as odd-couple armed robbers. Buscemi plays a usual type for him, nervous and greasy, and meets a fate that long-time observers of Buscemi characters will find familiar. (He complains about this, hilariously, in the commentary track: “I can’t let my Mom watch any of my movies, she gets too upset.”) Lloyd, on the other hand, goes against the grain with a scary-good performance as a cool, calm gentleman thief.

Reflecting its long gestation period, Twenty Bucks seems ageless, its photography and art direction creating an ambiguous timestamp. Exterior shots in Minneapolis feature old downtown buildings and locations, while the interiors (shot mostly in L.A.) are more contemporary. But there are no conspicuous fashions, no product placements or brand names to orient us. One early scene in a coffee shop brings several characters together from separate storylines. The color palette and set decoration produce a muted, out-of-the-timestream atmosphere. This could be a hipster coffee joint in 1993 or a train station diner circa 1940.

None of the separate tales is as interesting as the overlaps and juxtapositions between them, conveying a sense of interrelated events happening in different places at the same time. Jung called it “synchronicity,” and it’s something akin to the Buddhist idea of codependent origination. The gist is: we’re all connected by invisible strings, and when weird shit happens, we call it coincidence. But move laterally, and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of something else at work.

The history of American independent film is littered with critically praised projects that slip through the cracks of the Hollywood distribution system. Twenty Bucks is one such film, and an encouraging example of how DVDs allow for the excavation of forgotten gems.