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Dustin's Review

A Slipping-Down Life (2004)
1 Stars

Directed by Toni Kalem
Cast: Lili Taylor, Guy Pearce, John Hawkes, Sara Rue, Tom Bower, Irma P. Hall, Shawnee Smith, Veronica Cartwright, Marshall Bell, Bruno Kirby, Clea DuVall
2004 – 111 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language including sexual references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 10, 2004.

For all intents and purposes, the average viewer would suspect that "A Slipping-Down Life" is a brand-new motion picture. Trailers have begun playing in theaters, the official site is newly opened, and Lions Gate Films is set to put it out in limited release this month. A little research, however, uncovers the fact that "A Slipping-Down Life" actually had its premiere in dramatic competition at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and has been stuck in limbo for five years as it searched for a distributor to pick it up. Normally, the unheralded indie films bag a smaller distributor and go straight-to-DVD, so it is a testament to writer-director Toni Kalem that she steadfastly stuck beside her debut feature so that it wouldn't immediately get lost in the shuffle of obscure video store shelves. While her persistence has paid off, the lackluster finished product signals that it wasn't worth all the trouble.

Evie Decker (Lili Taylor), a meek young woman of about thirty, is stuck in a rut that she isn't quite sure she will ever get out of. Living with her father (Tom Bower) in their small, dead-end town of Pulqua, North Carolina, Evie works at a kiddie amusement park and whiles away her time dreaming of a more satisfying life. And then she hears the voice of local rock performer Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce) on a late-night radio station and, for the first time in her life, Evie believes she has finally found the one person who would be able to understand her. With best friend Violet (Sara Rue) in tow, Evie starts going to his performances at a nearby bar and is further bewitched by not only his singing, but the largely misunderstood messages he tries to send out to his listeners.

In an intentionally out-of-character action, Evie cuts his name onto her forehead with a shard of glass and immediately attracts the attention of Casey and his manager, David Elliot (John Hawkes). For David, he sees Evie's stunt as a chance for Casey to finally gain recognition and press. For Casey, he suddenly detects the soulful connection between himself and Evie and is intrigued by her. For Evie, however, what she did to herself had nothing to do with Casey and everything to do with herself. It is her first step in showing everyone that she has what it takes to be a strong individual courageous enough to leave the safe, humdrum life she has so far led.

Based on the novel by Anne Tyler, "A Slipping-Down Life" proposes to be a small, character-driven slice-of-life, but the screenplay by Toni Kalem is too trite and uninteresting to service the wonderfully affecting performance from Lili Taylor (2003's "Casa de los Babys"). The writing is largely dreary, failing to mix its humor (little of which works) and drama into a satisfying whole. The plot begins to spin its wheels before the first hour is up, simultaneously introducing too many characters and developments even as nothing seems to be happening. Its languid pacing and repetitiveness suck all of the energy from the proceedings, and by the time the story wraps itself up, the viewer has long since stopped caring.

In a role that reminds of her quietly heartbreaking work in the easily superior 1991 drama, "Dogfight," Lili Taylor is stupendous as Evie Decker, a woman so unhappy, so obedient, and so tired with a life that is going nowhere that she takes extreme measures to come into her own as a person. In every frame one can palpably see the longing and frustration in Evie's eyes and body language, all of which is a credit to Taylor's rapturous, quirky presence. Unfortunately, even Evie's predicament gets lost somewhere along the way as too much time is spent dealing with the rest of the one-dimensional characters.

Drumstrings Casey, supposedly the key to unlocking Evie's internal suffocation, remains a cipher throughout when he should have been explored on a deeper level. Because he fails to grow beyond being a plot device, and his romance with Evie is, at most, threadbare in its conception, one never gets the sense that he has fallen in love with her. The part gets no help from Guy Pearce (2002's "The Time Machine"), who sings well but shows none of the depth he elicited in, say, 2000's "Memento." Supporting roles, like Sara Rue (2001's "Pearl Harbor," TV's "Less Than Perfect") as Evie's best friend, Violet; John Hawkes (2003's "Identity") as Casey's manager; and Irma P. Hall (2004's "The Ladykillers") as the Decker's forthright maid, show promise but are just as negligibly handled.

"A Slipping-Down Life," a title infinitely more provocative than the film that goes along with it, follows slightly drawn characters who do things that are a requirement of the plot rather than out of natural, believable human behavior. Because you can't believe in them, there is no way for Evie's journey to hold the emotional catharsis intended. Furthermore, the cinematography by Michael F. Barrow (1998's "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died") is flat and murky, and Toni Kalem's direction lacks spontaneity--catastrophes, indeed, since the film itself is supposed to be all about discovering the values and joy in one's life. "A Slipping-Down Life" wants to be more impacting and impassioned than it comes close to ever achieving. It is an ambitious motion picture, but didn't have the talent behind the camera or on the page to do it justice. Regrettably, bypassing theaters might not have been such a bad idea for this static novel-to-screen adaptation.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman