Originally written for The Occidental
Imagine, if you will, a small bar in a small town somewhere in Long Island. It’s the kind of place you can find almost anywhere in America, filled with the sort of people you’d expect — a bickering retired couple, bartenders who have seen and heard it all, the usual contingent of singles trying to pick each other up, an ancient alcoholic drinking himself to death on his barstool… There aren’t many directors who’d take the time to make a movie about the people in a place like this. Writer/director Steve Buscemi took a chance and as a result, gives us Trees Lounge.
I went into the theater not knowing quite what to expect. The ads I’d seen described it as “a bleak comedy,” and reviews had raved about it, calling it “deft, funny, and lighthanded,” but also “shattering.” I was expecting a good performance from Steve Buscemi, the star. I’ve only seen fifteen of his fifty-odd films, but I haven’t seen a bad performance from him yet. His roles have ranged from a dying musician in Parting Glances to a shy mamma’s boy in Ed and His Dead Mother to the caffeinated Mr. Pink of Reservoir Dogs, and he’s played every one completely naturally. So, I was confident that his acting would be great — but I wasn’t sure of how good the rest of the film would be. He wrote and directed the film as well as starring in it, and it was his first time for both on the big screen.
I shouldn’t have worried. Trees Lounge is a terrific movie in all aspects. Summarizing the plot is all but impossible, since it revolves around Tommy Basilio (Buscemi), a 31-year-old barfly, and the people he meets in and out of the Trees Lounge, his favorite hangout. Buscemi creates a complex character — Tommy is at once a frustrating loser who never seems to learn and a charmingly sympathetic guy. I found myself feeling sorry for him even when my head was telling me he was an alcoholic loser.
As the film starts, Tommy has been fired by his boss, Rob (Anthony LaPaglia) for borrowing money from the till without asking. To make matters worse, the woman Tommy went out with for eight years as dumped him to hook up with Rob. LaPaglia brings depth to his conflicted character, who used to be Tommy’s friend, but now isn’t sure how to act around him.
When Tommy’s uncle Al dies, he gets a temporary job driving Al’s ice cream truck. This works out okay, until a seventeen-year-old family friend (Chloe Sevigny) with a crush on him starts helping him out on the route. Temptation overcomes what sense of prudence he has, and Tommy is in even more trouble than before. Sevigny (who starred in Kids) is perfect for the part, at once immature and wise beyond her years.
Buscemi got wonderful performances out of the entire cast, including himself. HIs directing abilities bring his already good script to life, and he uses body language and informal, colloquial gestures to communicate as much as he uses actual words. Unlike your average Hollywood film, Trees Lounge assumes its audience is intelligent, an attitude I found refreshing. The reviewers were right — it is both “deft, funny, lighthanded” and “shattering” — and definitely worth seeing.