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Unhappy Hour

Bronson Dudley & Steve Buscemi
Naomi Kaltman

Two to the Bar: Bronson Dudley (left) and Steve Buscemi unwind with some bottled friends in "Trees Lounge."

Steve Buscemi plays a hapless loser in his own 'Trees Lounge'

By Richard von Busack

THE TRUE schlemiel, argues Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish, can fall on his back and break his nose. Throughout a distinguished career, Steve Buscemi has fractured his snoot in a number of guises. How do we love you, Steve? Let us count the ways: as a Reservoir Dog; as a postmodern Gabby Hayes in Desperado; as a major player in Fargo; as an unkillable assassin in Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead.

You also played hapless art-film directors twice. In the Soup's auteur could think of no better way to indicate a character's blindness that with a half-hour of black screen; in Living in Oblivion, you fought off a charge of sizeism from a dream-sequence dwarf.

All of this, and yet you had enough humor to parody your own face in Serial Mom, where you bought an oil portrait of Don Knotts at the flea market. Moist, panicky eyes, the mark of Abel on your forehead, an expression frozen in the rictus of an inept fibber--your face never seemed over-exposed. For others will be the Us covers and the billboards; for you, Steve, will be the satisfaction of constant work and the comforting knowledge that if a movie sucked, it certainly wasn't because of your 15 minutes in it.

In Trees Lounge, a bracingly dry comedy written and directed by Buscemi, our hero explores a champion loser, a man of such haplessness that he can't even hold down a job driving an ice cream truck. Other director/writer/stars would have crafted a role for themselves would show the tender heart under the homely puss. Leave it to Buscemi not only to pile on the misfortunes--unemployability, alcoholism, a pregnant ex-wife--but also to blame them all on his character.

Tommy Basilio (Buscemi) handles the situation like a pro--by drinking too much at the grimy neighborhood bar of the title and compounding his troubles with a hopeless fling with his own niece. In a movie full of the ill-favored, Chloe Sevigny's Debbie is all the more irresistible, sporting Jean Seberg's hair-do from Breathless. Sevigny sprawled attractively all over the shotgun seat of Buscemi's ice cream truck as they tinklingly amble down the street is an idyllic a picture of a suburban summer.

The movie, like Buscemi's hero, doesn't have much drive, and almost seems like a series of sketches, but Tree's Lounge possesses plenty of ambiance of the low-class life: the bad bar-rock, the shame-faced coke-snorting, the botched one-night stands. Buscemi's integrity is such that the film makes it all the way to the last shot, the "moment of clarity" that's usually the turning point in movies about no-hopers. When he reaches this clarity--"I'm a jobless, beaten-up alcoholic in an awful bar full of surly winos"--Tommy backs away self-knowledge--"Oh well, guess that means it's cocktail time."

Trees Lounge (R; 95 min.), directed and written by Steve Buscemi, photographed by Lisa Rinzler and starring Buscemi.

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro

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