Reviews

Twenty Bucks (1993)

Glenn Michael McDonald

Reflecting its long gestation period, Twenty Bucks seems ageless, its photography and art direction creating an ambiguous timestamp.


Twenty Bucks

Director: Keva Rosenfeld
Cast: Brendan Frasier, Elizabeth Shue, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy, Christopher Lloyd
Distributor: Columbia Tri-Star
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Triton
First date: 1993
US DVD Release Date: 2005-07-05
Amazon affiliate

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image