Lonesome Jim, directed by Steve Buscemi, is destined, I fear, to become a lonesome gem. But a gem it is, in my book. I acknowledge that not many critics are fond of this small film. But I am.
If ever there were an exemplar of the writing instructor’s axiom, ‘show, don’t tell’, this film is it. Scriptwriter James Strouse quietly and patiently delivers the story of Jim, a hyper-sensitive young man and would-be-writer, forced by his failures to abandon the big city and return to his home town.
The biblical Goshen was a place of plenty and prosperity where hard work yielded just desserts. But the Goshen, Indiana of Lonesome Jim is a gulag of convention and drudgery. It’s the last place Jim wants to be, but the only refuge left in an inhospitable world.
The film opens with Jim’s reluctant return. From the moment he enters the front door of his family’s home, we understand why he left. He is greeted, if that’s the word, by his older brother Tim, a zombie in his early thirties. Jim is then smothered by his mother, who, like Bob Dole, another mid-westerner, seems incapable of using the first person pronoun. She refers to herself, almost always, as Mom. And finally, Jim’s father, summoned from his basement sanctuary by a walkie-talkie, ascends the stairs and without a hug or hello, asks icily, ‘what’s wrong with him’? (Because by this time Jim is in tears, sitting on the kitchen floor, and complaining of dehydration.)
The need for water, the very juice of life, is a quietly recurring theme in Lonesome Jim.
One of the things I like so much about this film is that not much is writ large. It doesn’t take long to realize that Jim is a seriously depressed fellow. But there’s not a clinical word in the entire movie. There are no therapists lurking in the wings to restore
Jim to mental health.
There is, however, a nurse, played beautifully by Liv Tyler, who enters Jim’s life, via a sexual encounter. She does, in fact, represent or symbolize an opportunity for health, but she does so by example, and without exhortation or diagnosis.
They meet in a bar and it’s the occasion for one of the best lines I’ve heard in any film, ever. Jim introduces himself as a writer. And Anika, the nurse, tells him that she writes too.
“I write, but just for myself”, she says. And Jim replies: Well, I like your audience. It’s a clever and subtle line, and both times I’ve seen this movie, it’s taken about five seconds before the audience laughs.
Lonesome Jim is full of great lines. And they come from left field, when you least expect them. This film is so much better than most films we get to see. It does require patience and attention. But these are qualities we’d do well to cultivate in our cartoon quick world.
It won’t be to everyone’s cup of tea, but I unabashedly loved this film and encourage you to see it. Better do it this week. It probably won’t be around for long.
For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.