Film review: Trees Lounge

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

A couple of years ago, Steve Buscemi, a quirky character actor who is best known for supporting roles in such low-budget pictures as "Fargo," "Reservoir Dogs" and "Desperado," had his first starring role in a little independent comedy called "Living in Oblivion." He played a low-budget filmmaker who was working against ever-mounting odds to get his dream project made.

Now Buscemi has his second starring role, and the film is a low-budget, independent comedy-drama that he created for himself, marking his writing and directing debut.

Gee, life really does imitate art . . . or maybe that should be, art really does imitate life?

Anyway, "Trees Lounge" is sort of a younger version of "Barfly," about a 30ish go-nowhere loser who can't get his act together and spends most of his time drowning his sorrows in the local watering hole.

The film takes a slice-of-life approach as we follow Tommy Basilio (Buscemi) over the course of several days. He lives in an apartment over Trees Lounge, a favorite pub, and the bar is more like home than the apartment.

A crummy auto mechanic, Tommy has been fired for stealing from the till. If that's not enough, his best friend and boss, Rob (Anthony LaPaglia, of TV's "Murder One"), has taken away Theresa (Elizabeth Bracco), his girlfriend of eight years — who just happens to be pregnant. But is the baby Tommy's or Rob's? Even Theresa doesn't seem to know for sure.

In the bar we also meet Connie (Carol Kane), the sympathetic bartender; Mike (Mark Boone Junior), a vacationing businessman who is having domestic problems; frail, elderly Bill (Bronson Dudley), who also lives in the building; flighty Crystal (Debi Mazer), who may or may not be looking for love; and others.

There is no central plot here, but there are quite a few mini-plots, two of which stand out:

— Uncle Al (Seymour Cassel), the longtime area ice-cream man, has a heart attack, which results in Tommy's taking over the route (with predictably amusing results on his first time out).

— Tommy becomes involved with Debbie (Chloe Sevigny), the troubled 17-year-old daughter of neighborhood friends (Daniel Baldwin, Mimi Rogers).

The first half of the film is quite amusing and the characters are well drawn, each with quirks of their own. But in the second half, especially after the "Lolita" story line kicks in, everything starts to run downhill.

The performances are all quite natural and real, and Buscemi the writer-director strives to keep things on an ambiguous level. He wants to demonstrate all the gray of real life, as opposed to the black-and-white solutions offered by most movies.

But he isn't quite able to keep it all afloat, and pointless digressions into drug abuse and protracted, meaningless conversations don't help.

"Trees Lounge" is rated R for considerable profanity and vulgarity, drug abuse (marijuana and cocaine) and implied sex between Tommy and Debbie (though both deny afterward that anything happened).