What sets Trees Lounge apart from other movies about quirky people meandering through the complicated ordinariness of their lives (2 Days in the Valley, Reality Bites) is that it defies casual categorization; there's barely a cliche, extraneous character, or weak contrivance from beginning to end. Although the script accurately captures the ways people talk--especially the lounge lizards as they slither through a bar hustling drinks and women--the movie is not about conversation in the way movies like Tin Men or Glengarry Glen Ross are; it's about the people themselves. While populated with many characters, both central and marginal, the closest the film comes to a protagonist is Tommy (Steve Buscemi), an unemployed auto mechanic with a car that won't run and a girlfriend who left him after eight years. We don't learn many more specifics than these about Tommy--or anyone else, for that matter--and that is the chief source of the movie's oddball charms. You can almost smell these characters' back stories in every scene and every line of dialogue, and credit for that care rests squarely with Buscemi, who also wrote and directed Trees Lounge.
Buscemi's bug-eyed moonface, spindly arms, and prominent teeth give him the appearance of a caricature; he's the kind of man you'd suspect of being a pedophile just by looking at him. His bony, vampiric face has glared out of the screen in 30 movies during the past 10 years, and while he has appeared in big-budget studio productions, he's best-known for being the Peter Lorre of low-budget independent films, especially movies by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. (Two of his most memorable roles were as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs and the weaselly bellhop in Barton Fink.)
He must have considered those acting gigs as some kind of extended training ground for alternative filmmaking, because he has obviously learned a lot from indie writers and directors. Beginning with his first phenomenally deadpan visual joke--an extremely long, static frame shot of a glassy-eyed drunk, silently sitting with his money spread on the bar in front of him waiting for a refill--Buscemi establishes the movie's defiantly unique tone: direct, deliberate, slightly obtuse, and spooky with a surprising otherworldliness. If Leaving Las Vegas were directed by David Lynch, it might look like Trees Lounge.
What's most surprising about Buscemi's movie is that it got produced in the first place. The narrative line is rambling, the hero a detestable sot, and if you're expecting a tidy resolution of all the plot lines, you'll be sorely disappointed. This is precisely the type of individual, personal film that the studios are incapable of producing or even recognizing as worthy of an audience. It probably helped Buscemi's distribution that he was able to assemble a cast of fine actors, most of whom he has acted with in other films: Carol Kane as the long-suffering barmaid; Anthony LaPaglia as Tommy's ex-boss and woman stealer; Mimi Rogers as Tommy's almost-sister-in-law; and Seymour Cassel as his uncle, a Good Humor man whose sudden death from a heart attack leaves his truck to slowly jingle its way over suburban lawns and passing by one anxious kid who never seems to get ice cream. Even the lesser-known actors playing some of the barflies--one who looks to be part William S. Burroughs, part Don Imus; his face is a punch line--are totally in sync with the movie's lackadaisical but somewhat eerie pacing.
The real appeal of the movie is not Buscemi's confidence with the design and style of the film, but the depth and perceptiveness of his observations. Although it can be cynical and mean, usually at Tommy's expense, Trees Lounge is all the more remarkable for being unexpectedly tender. In the end, the film's success lies in Buscemi's wisdom; he understands how the only thing more certain than the frailty of men is their capacity to endure.
Trees Lounge. Orion Classic/Live Entertainment. Steve Buscemi, Anthony LaPaglia, Carol Kane, Daniel Baldwin, Mimi Rogers, Samuel L. Jackson. Written and directed by Steve Buscemi. Now playing.