A Slipping-Down Life
2004, R, 109 min. Directed by Toni Kalem. Starring Lili Taylor, Guy Pearce, John Hawkes, Sara Rue, Irma P. Hall, Tom Bower, Shawnee Smith, Veronica Cartwright.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 28, 2004
Although just now being released in 2004, this movie was filmed in Austin during the summer of 1998 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. A "slipping-down life" was beginning to sound like the fate of the movie, as well as the title of the Anne Tyler novella on which the film's story is based. Actress-turned-first-time director Toni Kalem (currently seen playing Angie Bonpensiero on The Sopranos) also authored the screenplay adaptation after acquiring the rights because of her passion for the story. It's the tale of Evie Decker (Taylor), a disconnected young woman with a borderline personality who lives in a rural community with her widowed father, who is more tuned in to the distant realities he picks up on his ham radio than what is happening under his own roof. Evie works at Kiddie Acres wearing a haggard rabbit costume and plugged-in earphones under her floppy bunny ears. While lying in bed one night listening to the radio she hears the voice of another disaffected soul – Drumstrings Casey (Pearce) – a local musician who babbles nonsensically about his upcoming gig and desire to blow their two-bit town. Immediately drawn by his mystique, Evie coaxes her best friend Violet (Rue, who has since seen popular success as the star of the TV show Less Than Perfect), and quickly becomes obsessed with Casey and believes she has a special communion with the charismatic musician, whose tunes are often bogged down by pseudo-poetic spoken-word rambles. It’s a clue into Evie’s mind that nobody, except maybe Casey’s manager/drummer David (played by the formerly Austin-based actor Hawkes), finds his music as compelling as Evie. Without any warning during a show, Evie goes into the ladies’ restroom and carves Casey’s name into her forehead. (It’s a grisly sequence that, thankfully, has, been trimmed measurably for this release edit.) The joke of the movie is that even in this perverse act of self-definition, Evie bungles the procedure. Were anyone except Lili Taylor playing the role of Evie, the character would come across as pathetic and self-destructive. But Taylor is the queen the many actresses who specialize in playing self-effacing characters. She always finds the strength and untapped reserves in these women, and brings a sureness and sense of purpose to these roles that makes viewers believe in believe in characters who do not even believe in themselves. Taylor, however, seems a bit too old to be playing this character, whose boredom and lack of direction is better fitted to a more adolescent mind frame. This is only one of several things that are off-balance in this movie. It’s also hard to define any particular decade in which A Slipping-Down Life is set. From Evie’s drab and shapeless clothing to Violet’s punkette attire, Casey’s Jim Morrisonesque warblings to the country roadhouses it’s nearly impossible to peg the time period in which all this takes place. The first half of the movie is much better than the latter half, during which Casey and Evie struggle to reconcile their need for each other before driving off into the sunset of a implausibly happy ending. There is also a lot of good supporting work in this movie, including the performances of Irma P Hall, Tom Bowser as Evie’s clueless dad, and Bruno Kirby as Kiddie Acres’ gruff impresario. The tunes in the film have been penned by the like of Joe Henry, Ron Sexsmith, Robyn Hitchcock, the Flat Duo Jets, and Glover Gill. A Slipping-Down Life has a lot going for it, but not nearly all it should have.