Rating: *** (out of ****)
As one of American independent cinema's most ubiquitous actors, Steve Buscemi has consistently portrayed deadbeats, lowlifes, eccentrics, slackers, and other assorted misfits; it comes as no surprise, then, that his directorial debut amounts to a cautionary paean (yes, I realize that's an oxymoron) to small-town losers. What is surprising, given the generally grim subject matter, is how energetic and funny much of the picture is. Buscemi was reportedly inspired to make Trees Lounge after seeing a Cassavetes retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and the influence is certainly apparent onscreen, but Buscemi's sensibility is less ironic, more sympathetic -- when his generally unhappy characters are having a good time, you're enjoying their high spirits and enthusiasm...whereas a party in a Cassavetes film is a grim affair indeed, no matter how drunkenly exuberant the folks attending it may be. (The party in Faces may be the most depressing in movie history.) Virtually plotless and relatively familiar, Trees Lounge depends largely upon first-rate performances to grab your attention and hold it for an hour and a half; every five minutes or so, it seems, another talented actor -- Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Carol Kane, Kevin Corrigan, Mimi Rogers -- turns up, rocks the house, and splits...perhaps to return in a subsequent scene, perhaps not. The only real problem with this episodic structure is that one episode in particular -- involving a tentative flirtation between Buscemi's character and a teenager played by Kids' Chloe Sevigny (who is outstanding) -- is so disproportionately compelling that it makes the rest of the picture seem wan and trivial by comparison; everything that happens after this strand of the minimal plot is resolved feels anticlimactic, and much of what took place before it was introduced seems in retrospect like a waste of time. Also, like most novice directors, Buscemi sometimes has difficulty sustaining a consistent tone; while the humor he injects into his downbeat tale is welcome, some of his jokes (in particular, a running gag in which a forlorn tot keeps just missing the ice-cream truck that Buscemi's character drives) are so broadly comic that they belong in some other movie (albeit one I'd like to see). On the whole, however, this is an impressive debut: an independent film more interested in behavior than in attitude, and one that values substance over style. Refreshing.