Steve Buscemi's "Trees Lounge" is set in the alternate universe ... you know, the one where Steve Buscemi isn't a star.
It's like an autobiographical fantasy, in which the brilliantly weaselly actor imagines what might have happened if he'd never left Long Island for downtown and the performance scene, never gotten that big break as Mr. Pink in "Reservoir Dogs" and gone on to become all but de rigueur in any independent film that demands to be taken seriously, including his own.
But in "Trees Lounge," Buscemi conjures himself as one Tommy Basilio, unemployed mechanic and blue-collar neighborhood cut-up, a tireless schmoozer and wannabe ladies guy, skating by on ice so thin it vibrates like a trampoline, just one of those guys who's always, you know, hanging out. In Saul Bellow's memorable phrase, he's the quintessential dangling man. No job, no prospects, crummy apartment, always just this side of trouble with the law, a smart-ass famous for his bad judgment and his inability to say no to even the most taboo of taboos. To know Tommy is to love him, unless of course he owes you money and since he owes everybody money, nobody loves him at all.
The movie is built around an authentic L.I. watering spot of the same name, though now a sports bar; the movie set is actually in Brooklyn. That falsification appears, however, to be the only one in the picture, which feels so drop-dead accurate it's a knockout. In fact, you may get lung cancer from all the secondary smoke and wake up with a hangover and someone strange in bed with you!
Buscemi doesn't take a formal writing credit -- there isn't a writer listed -- which suggests he got together with his friends, old and new, and the whole thing was improvised, after the style of the late John Cassavetes, whom he's said to admire. That's how vivid and spontaneous the dialogue feels.
It's one of those seemingly plotless, character-driven pieces that gradually becomes more and more familiar until at last you get it: Oh, yeah -- that's the real world, you know, the one that can't really be reduced, with its endless network of connections, its little treacheries, its seething hostilities and, now and then, an odd epiphany of mercy, a rare moment of human decency. But there's none of the sense of self-conscious Hollywood condescension: It's not one of those grotesque "little people" pictures as imagined by swells who've got bloated guts from all the Pellegrino they've chugged at Mezzaluna. It's a real people picture, where the people smoke too much, curse too much, hit too much and throw up too much.
Tommy lost his job for stealing from his boss. It seemed fair to him because the boss (Anthony LaPaglia) stole Tommy's girlfriend (Elizabeth Bracco), who happened to be pregnant with Tommy's child, and he still misses her passionately. So he hangs around the Trees, throwing himself at anybody in a skirt who comes in, with a line of patter that's both brilliant and insane.
Buscemi, such an icon of strange vibration in his more usual films, is content not to outshine his pals. He's the same small rodent with too many yellow teeth and a smirky little mouth, but he backs out and lets other stories take the stage: Old pal Mark Boone Junior plays a bar hanger-on who turns out to be a surprisingly successful businessman with a complex emotional life; Daniel Baldwin is an ex-buddy who's turned into a vengeful father when Tommy gets a little familiar with his teen-age daughter (Chloe Sevigny of "Kids"). Even Mimi Rogers, usually an actress with a lifted pinky of social security, has a brief, pungent scene as a working-class mother. There's no patronizing in "Trees Lounge," only brilliant performances.
Starring Steve Buscemi, Anthony LaPaglia and Daniel Baldwin
Directed by Steve Buscemi
Released by Orion
Rated R (Profanity, sexual situations)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 10/25/96