Friday October 18, 1996
How many people are there in the United States whose entire lives revolve around characters and events in a neighborhood bar? The census takers don't provide that particular demographic, but surely there are millions. And had he chosen just to hang out in his hometown of Valley Stream, Long Island, instead of pursuing an acting career, Steve Buscemi might have become one of them.
In Buscemi's deceptively light dramatic comedy "Trees Lounge," which marks the busy actor's debut as a writer and director, we hang out ourselves for a few days in the hectic, boozy fringes of working-class suburbia with Buscemi's Tommy, a guy whose own friends can only describe as a screw-up.
Tommy lives in an apartment above Trees Lounge, staggering distance from the center of his social existence. He's lost his job as an auto mechanic for borrowing money without asking. His former girlfriend (Elizabeth Bracco), who may be pregnant with his child, has moved in with his angry ex-boss (Anthony LaPaglia). He doesn't have money to fix his car or buy drinks, and his erratic behavior is frequently getting him booted out of the Trees Lounge.
The death of Tommy's uncle, an ice cream vendor, draws him out of the bar to be with his family and presents him with what he considers a demeaning opportunity, to take over the route in the neighborhood. When a 17-year-old family friend (Chloe Sevigny) with a crush on Tommy begins sneaking away from home to help him on the route, temptation overcomes his weak grip on prudence and he's in bigger trouble than ever.
Buscemi handles all of this with a casualness that seems exactly right for the milieu. His characters aren't caught up in a great dramatic crisis, they're caught up in everyday life, going over these events like so many speed bumps in time. There are no bad guys in the story, just people struggling to get by and improve their lives--even if, for Tommy, that simply means getting his car fixed so he can go back to work and support his lifestyle at Trees Lounge.
The film is laced with the kinds of performances and scenes that marked the early work of John Cassavetes, yet "Trees Lounge" is, like so many of the independent films Buscemi has starred in, dressed out as a very slick production.
Buscemi also got from himself a terrific performance, making Tommy simultaneously pathetic and sympathetic, likable and frustrating. He's a man at a crossroads without knowing it. He's young enough to break out and make something of his life, but if he doesn't do it soon, he can see his future down at the other end of the bar, where a Trees Lounge veteran sits alone every day, calmly, resolutely drinking himself to death.
It must have given Buscemi the shakes just thinking about it.
Trees Lounge, 1996. R, for plentiful strong language and some drug content. A Live Entertainment Presentation of an Addis-Wechsler and Muse/Wyman production in association with Seneca Falls Productions. Released by Orion Pictures. Director Steve Buscemi. Producers Brad Wyman, Chris Hanley. Executive producers Nick Wechsler, Julie Silverman Yorn. Screenplay by Buscemi. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler. Editor Kate Williams. Costumes Mari-An Ceo. Music Evan Lurie. Production design Steve Rosenzweig. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Steve Buscemi as Tommy Basilio. Chloe Sevigny as Debbie. Mark Boone Junior as Mike. Anthony LaPaglia as Rob. Elizabeth Bracco as Theresa. Eszter Balint as Marie. Carol Kane as Connie. Daniel Baldwin as Jerry.