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Photograph by Deanna Newcomb

What About Dr. Feelgood: Guy Pearce and Lili Taylor have second thoughts about the rock & roll lifestyle after hearing about the lack of medical benefits in a 'A Slippery Down LIfe.'

Slice of 'Life'

Lili Taylor goes Iggy Pop on her forehead to make an impression in 'A Slipping Down Life'

By Richard von Busack

A vaguely vague title, an expired shelf life and Lili Taylor mutilating herself. Not most people's idea of a good time, this first-time release of the 1999 adaptation of Anne Tyler's novel A Slipping Down Life by Toni Kalem. (Kalem is the actress who plays the bereaved wife of Big Pussy on The Sopranos.)

It's been years--since Dogfight, maybe--that Taylor's Mediterranean prettiness was given half a chance. She excels at playing outcasts, avengers and harpies, and it's rare those big strong facial bones and that heroic nose are softened for the camera with makeup and filters. Here she wears dresses and chiffons, and sometimes she has her hair cut in bangs. Her Evie is a mild small town girl with a purposeless life. She walks through a series of minor jobs, and she lives with her fading-away father (Tom Bower, who is excellent).

The vulnerable Evie decides that the best way to make a stand is to devote herself utterly to an arrogant, small-time rock musician called Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce). At a North Carolina nightclub, she decides to catch his eye by carving his name in her forehead with broken glass (this happens off-camera). Casey's accompaniest (John Hawkes), a hick who thinks of himself as a shrewd manager, tries to parlay this bloody act into a publicity stunt. Drumstrings himself can't realize the deep worthiness of this girl, even when she's proved her loyalty; and he keeps getting tempted by a simpler blonde, Violet (Shawnee Smith, at her skaggiest).

A Slipping Down Life was shot in Austin, with a soundtrack of covers derived from Robyn Hitchcock and Vic Chestnutt, and there are added tunes by Flat Duo Jets. Even with this music, you can never really tell if Drumstrings Casey is any good or not. Maybe that's the point. He goes in for "spoken-word interludes" like Jim Morrison under the influence. Pearce has his own outlandish facial bones: a forehead like the prow of a bulldozer, and a chin that would give Superman pause. But in some scenes he wears eyeglasses. The strategic use of glasses by actors has been called "Scarecrow Syndrome," in honor of the song Ray Bolger's Scarecrow sings. The glasses prove Drumstrings has a poetic side. Evie's wounding faith in his quality may be justified, even when the musician won't get out of bed for days.

Despite how it sounds, A Slipping Down Life is a strangely light film, with its green small town and honest-looking locations--I liked the bar that has the sign over the pool table: "No Hard Shooting." And there's a fine pet goat that keeps sticking his head in the frame. Taylor's completely appealing in this gentle mode. However, Kalem insists on laying it on thick. Even backward girls read Cosmopolitan, so the scene where Evie readies herself for her honeymoon by turning up in a quilted bed-jacket is too pathetic. So is the moment where Drumstring's father (Marshall Bell) ruins a dinner party. If there's one solid rule in movies it ought to be: actors playing drunks ought not to brandish half-pint flasks.

A Slipping Down Life (R; 111 min.), written and directed by Toni Kalem, based on the novel by Anne Tyler, photographed by Michael F. Barrow and starring Lili Taylor and Guy Pearce, opens this week.

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From the May 26-June 2, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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