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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 10/24/1996, B: Peter Keough,

Lounge act

Steve Buscemi blooms with Trees

by Peter Keough

TREES LOUNGE. Written and directed by Steve Buscemi. With Steve Buscemi, Carol Kane, Mark Boone Junior, Elizabeth Bracco, Michael Buscemi, Rockets Redglare, Eszter Balint, Anthony LaPaglia, Chloe Sevigny, Daniel Baldwin, Bronson Dudley, and Kevin Corrigan. An Orion Pictures release. At the Janus and the Coolidge Corner.

Unlike Cheers, the title establishment of Steve Buscemi's astonishingly accomplished debut feature, Trees Lounge, is a place where everybody doesn't know your name and sometimes can't remember his or her own. And for good reason. Take leading barfly Tommy Basilio, played by Buscemi with a subtlety, sensitivity, and desperate wit that add another dimension to the memorable lowlifes he's made a career of. Tommy has lost Connie (Elizabeth Bracco), his girlfriend, and Rob (Anthony LaPaglia), his best friend -- to each other, naturally. He's also lost his job as a mechanic, and everything else that matters in his life except for hanging out at the bar, hitting on drunken women, and thinking just maybe he can break out of this malaise by fulfilling his dream of becoming a comedian. It's not likely; even his car works only as a metaphor for his life -- if he doesn't keep his foot on the accelerator it will stall out, perhaps never to start again.

Set in Valley Stream, the blue-collar town on Long Island where Buscemi grew up, this vaguely autobiographical film captures the seedy bars, tacky bungalows, and cheesy storefronts with such weary familiarity it evokes a gray haze of anomie. True to its subject, the narrative consists of a series of binges and blackouts, with Tommy slipping in and out of encounters with oddballs, hangovers, and constant irrefutable evidence of his own futility. Buscemi's inspiration is John Cassavetes, but his style lacks his mentor's coiled spontaneity and nascent chaos. To its advantage, though, he's much more narratively coherent than Cassavetes, unreeling with casual clarity his film's many interconnecting tales, his tone sweet and nearly serene, belying the sometimes sordid and mean-spirited antics of the characters.

Who include Mike (Mark Boone Junior, bearish and weird in a compelling performance), a relative well-to- entrepreneur who gets off by slumming at the lounge, cozying up especially to Tommy, and plying him with drinks in a fuzzy attempt to live vicariously in his demi-monde. When Mike's wife (Eszter Balint) leaves with her daughter, he talks Tommy into coming back to his place with a couple of teenage pick-ups for a party. What results is less erotic than pathetic, with both Mike's need and Tommy's exposed beneath their sodden bravura. Adding to this deflating of macho is a scene in which Tommy tries to pick up a blowzy but seemingly willing Crystal (Debi Mazar). He gets her drunk -- too drunk. She passes out, but Tommy refuses to give up his efforts to score. It's hilarious and very sad.

Tommy's tale takes a dramatic turn of sorts when his Uncle Al (Seymour Cassel, who makes a vivid impression in his few minutes on screen, especially when fondling his niece in a home video) dies of a heart attack. After a funeral that's a mini-masterpiece of familial insensitivity and bad taste, Tommy is offered Uncle Al's legacy -- an ice-cream-truck route. In addition to the coterie of dubious neighborhood kids disappointed that he's not Uncle Al, the route also includes Debbie (Chloe Sevigny, much more appealing and nuanced than in Kids), the nubile daughter of his friend Jerry (Daniel Baldwin) and Jerry's wife, Patty (Mimi Rogers).

Tommy used to babysit Debbie; now, draped coltishly over the passenger seat of the ice-cream truck, she engages him in banter. It's the closest Tommy gets to a genuine relationship, and of course he ruins it. In a delicate orchestration of tenderness and sexual tension the opening up of his soul leads to the opening up of his fly, and his last chance at redemption ends with him getting chased by an enraged man with a baseball bat.

It takes an extraordinary degree of dramatic integrity, meticulous detail, and triumphant irony to redeem such a loser, and Buscemi -- as writer, director, and actor -- is equal to the task. Although alter ego Tommy is left bereft and staring blankly at the bar, for Steve Buscemi Trees Lounge marks the start of a richly promising filmmaking career.