Film Reviews

Unkind Cuts

It's been a long time since I've despised a film character the way I despised Chad Palomino (James Le Gros), a rich, handsome, spoiled young Method actor who's had a string of early successes and has let every one of them go to his head.

He's just been cast as the male lead in a low-budget film called Living in Oblivion. From the moment he steps onto the set, he sets about systematically subverting every aspect of the movie to glamorize himself and diminish everybody around him. This guy's narcissism is overwhelming; in sheer, unapologetic, preening insufferability, he makes Richard Gere look humble. I hated him with such passionate intensity that whenever he wasn't on-screen, I started missing the rage he made me feel. His repugnance can give you a contact high.

During a love scene, he brazenly upstages his leading lady, Nicole (Catherine Keener), by insisting that he deliver his lines while lying behind her on the bed, forcing Nicole to speak lines with her back to the camera. Chad also offers unsolicited advice to the picture's cinematographer, Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), a pumped-up, beret-wearing tough guy whose supermacho intensity suggests a twentysomething Stallone, and even assigns the guy a completely unwanted pet name: "Lobo."

And though he professes admiration for the work of his boho director, Nick ("None of that Hostess Twinkie shit!" Chad declares), he fights with him from the get-go. He keeps offering Nick boneheaded suggestions that, if they aren't indulged immediately and cheerfully, quickly turn into ultimatums.

Le Gros, who's established himself as one of America's finest young character actors (he played Matt Dillon's groggy best friend in Drugstore Cowboy), inhabits Chad Palomino so completely that he seems possessed by the spirit of every self-infatuated actor who ever made a filmmaker's life a living hell. It's a juicy part, to be sure; a lot of actors could have made it work. But Le Gros takes the character up to stratospheric heights of loathsomeness, creating a sublime monster who lingers in your mind. The painful pleasures created by his presence underscore what's so likable about Living in Oblivion. This film by Jim Jarmusch's former cinematographer, Tom DeCillo -- which has the same title as the movie being made by Nick -- probably won't seem quite so funny to viewers who've never spent time around filmmakers or film buffs. It's an extended inside joke, the kind of movie that serves up brawny boom microphone operators, ambitious assistant directors and brooding cinematographers as if they were easily recognizable types, like the burned-out cop or the whore with the heart of gold.

And its structure -- three interlinked short films, each one ending with a reference to dreams -- doesn't quite work. Still, there are plenty of pleasures on display. I loved the movie's look, which shifts between grainy black and white, old-movie black and white, super-saturated color and drab color, depending on whether you're seeing through the eyes of an actor, a character, a cameraman or someone else. And the actors are perfection. Buscemi, best known as the weasely Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs, is perfect as the director, who's desperately trying to keep his pet movie from going to pieces before his eyes. Dermot Mulroney's Wolf is appropriately brawny and tenderhearted. Catherine Keener is affecting as Nicole, an inexperienced actress who unfortunately gives her finest line readings during unfilmed rehearsals. And there are a number of hilarious bit parts by the actors playing crew members -- all of whom are angling to make low-budget movies of their own. (In a bit that should torpedo the high hopes of a whole generation of film school students, two technicians surreptitiously hand Chad Palomino a script they're thinking of shooting, and the actor uses it to shield his eyes from the sun.)

DeCillo knows the low-budget filmmaking scene firsthand. (His debut was the amiable urban comedy Johnny Suede, which starred a handsome, spoiled young Method actor named Brad Pitt. DeCillo claims Oblivion's Chad Palomino character isn't based on Pitt. He's obviously lying.) DeCillo understands how bad luck and long hours can turn even the most defiantly uncompromising would-be artists into waste cases willing to sell their grandmothers' souls if it means they can get the last shot of the day and go home to bed.

While Nick is rehearsing or filming a scene, DeCillo will give us close-ups of the director's support crew loitering behind him. You just know from their poorly disguised looks of contempt that every last one of them thinks he or she would make a better director than Nick. Inside their heads, every person on that set is an unheralded genius, and everybody else around them is a moron who will someday be very, very sorry for not believing in them.

Like his friend and supporter Jim Jarmusch, DeCillo's brand of misanthropy is surprisingly good-natured. He finds people funny and sad, but he isn't especially mean to them; he kids the pretentious beatnik in all of us. He doesn't even let his alter-ego, Nick, off the hook.

The final third of the picture details Nick's attempt to film a dream sequence in which his heroine, clad in a wedding dress, is tempted by a top-hatted dwarf bearing an apple. Tito (Peter Dinklage), the dwarf actor, keeps doing the scene with an unbelievably sour expression. The poor guy might be getting a paycheck for his efforts, but it's clearly not big enough to convince him that Nick's idea of dream logic is the slightest bit interesting. Nick keeps telling him to lighten up, laugh maniacally, prance a little and generate some "anxiety." During the spiel, Tito glares up at his boss with barely concealed disgust. He's nodding his head dutifully, but his eyes are saying, "And you think I'm a walking sight gag?"

-- Matt Zoller Seitz

Living in Oblivion.
Directed by Tom DeCillo. With Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, James Le Gros and Dermot Mulroney.

Rated R.
92 minutes.

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Matt Zoller Seitz