There is one important element missing from Lonesome Jim, Steve Buscemi's second film as a director: Buscemi himself. The film is suffused with its director's morose humor, desperate character, and schmo's pathos. Sadly, these elements fail to come to a boil, mostly because of the lackluster acting and cardboard dialogue between the film's two leads, second-degree-celebrity duo Casey Affleck and Liv Tyler.
The story follows Jim (Affleck), a depressed, near-suicidal writer who has returned from a failed stay in New York to his parents' house in the Midwest. He has retreated to this bleak milieu in order to, in his words, "have some kind of nervous breakdown." Buscemi's movie toys with art-film techniques: unusual framing, anti-heroes, etc., and, in its rather unambitious way, the film succeeds at this.
In fact, as long as everything is going downhill, the film is enjoyable if a bit dark. The family dynamic is humorous and natural, with comic relief coming mostly from Jim's erstwhile uncle Evil (Mark Boone Junior), who slacks off during his job at the family-owned plant and deals drugs on the side. Jim meets Anika (Tyler), a nurse and single mother, with whom he begins a classic Buscemi-esque romance. "How's your brother," Anika asks him shortly after their first date. "Good," Jim replies. "He's in a coma."
The major problem lies not with Buscemi but with writer James C. Strouse, who doesn't seem to know how to transition between the stylized world of indie doom and gloom, where his humor and plotting make sense, and the moments where Hollywood pokes its hopeful head into the picture. The romance between Jim and Anika only works as a failure. When the two come together for a gushing confession or predictable romantic hurdle, the dialogue curdles and the actors show the strain.
The pleasant exception to this is Jim's overbearing and ebullient mother Sally, played by Mary Kay Place. Her earnest determination to connect with her sons and aid them in their crumbling, solipsistic lives is not a narrative revelation, but Place plays the part brilliantly. She subtly allows the audience in on the fact that that upbeat attitude is an act of will, not ignorance, and comes away with the best performance in the film.
If you are a fan of dark, "honest" indie fare -- any Bright Eyes fans in the mood for a movie? -- then I'd recommend Lonesome Jim. Otherwise, I would wait this one out.