Those people who live in small towns, they're not like you and me. So naive, so innocent. And adorably quirky. Why, they've got so many lovable quirks, you just want to run up and hug 'em. Or if you're a filmmaker, perhaps you can make a movie about these simple folk so that you can adore them from a distance while sipping your latte and feeling secure that you're smarter than they are and don't have to live so far away from civilization.
That's the impression one gets from A Slipping Down Life, anyway. The feature directorial debut of Sopranos actress Toni Kalem, it's an adaptation of a 1969 novel by North Carolina writer Anne Tyler, and it's been in the can for some five years due to legal difficulties. Now in theaters thanks to Lions Gate, it hasn't aged well. Then again, it wasn't adapted well either.
Evie (Lili Taylor) is a slightly dysfunctional woman still living with her father and working at a rundown amusement park, where she is compelled to wear a giant bunny costume (somehow, the whole bunny costume thing has become cinematic shorthand for small-town weirdness/poignancy -- in Gummo prior and Donnie Darko and Cabin Fever since, among others). When she hears an up-and-coming local musician give a radio interview in weird non-sequitur fashion, she finds herself emotionally moved and goes to a rock show to seek him out. The man in question is Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce, post-L.A. Confidential, pre-Memento), a sort of ersatz Jim Morrison type with a penchant for suddenly stopping his songs (written for the movie by the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Ron Sexsmith) and "talking out," which is to say uttering pretentious, spoken-word nonsense that might seem profound to someone who's never heard poetry before. Like, say, Evie.
Evie develops a huge crush over the course of two shows and decides to get Drumstrings' attention by carving his last name into her forehead with broken glass. It works, and it gets him some free publicity too. Which is why, when she suggests that she should appear at every show as a sort of marketing gimmick, Drumstrings' manager-bandmate David (John Hawkes) takes her up on the offer. It seems to help their musical fortunes, and then, without much warning, Drumstrings proposes marriage to Evie. The film's second half deals with the aftermath of that decision.
The setup of socially stunted and slightly obsessive girl meeting pretentious brooding hunk is quite similar to another recent Lions Gate pickup, Lucky McKee's May. Unlike in May, however, it's not clear just why these characters are so emotionally immature. Are we to assume that Evie, played by 30-something Taylor looking her best, has grown up in a small North Carolina town without ever experiencing any kind of romance whatsoever? That Drumstrings' act wouldn't just seem incredibly passe to almost everyone? Or that middle- to old-aged men still derisively refer to "rock 'n' roll" as if it were a passing fad?
The problem is in the transition from page to screen. The book is set in 1969 -- the film, despite some retro touches like record players, is clearly contemporary, as most of the guys sport modern-looking tattoos and the opening act at one of Drumstrings' shows is a hard-core punk band. And the characters in the book are teenagers, which explains the whole impetuous first-love thing, as well as the tendency to do dramatic stuff like self-mutilation and bad poetry readings. When acted out by performers in their mid-30s, on the other hand, such behavior makes less sense and demands some sort of explanation that's never given, beyond the standard "quirkiness." An overweight teen marrying her first crush right away is shocking; an attractive adult making the same decision is strangely impetuous but not something that startles. If cast with, say, Ryan Gosling and Lauren Birkell, the film might have a stronger hand to play.
Periodically, writer-director Kalem seems about to hit on something really interesting only to lose focus and move on. The seedy amusement park (added to the story by Kalem) has possibilities but is forgotten about by mid-film. A dinner scene with Evie's dad (Tom Bower) and Drumstrings' parents (Veronica Cartwright and Marshall Bell) has potential and an Eraserhead vibe, but nothing that might ensue as a result is further explored much -- Drumstrings' parents and his relationship to them were developed better in the book. Once Evie and Drumstrings get together, there's also a lot to be mined from the conflict between small-town family life and big-time dreams or the disparity between the fantasy of making it with a rock idol and the realistic aftermath. But we barely get below the surface of those issues. Contrived plot points happen instead.
Worse, the ending has been altered, and not for the better. Original author Tyler is apparently happy with the adaptation -- or at least her payday from it -- but many of her fans will be less forgiving.
Also, Pearce's fake North Carolina accent sucks.
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