Trees Lounge is the 1996 directorial debut of actor Steve Buscemi, who also wrote and starred in the picture. Buscemi is a quality, respected actor, and I was sufficiently curious to check the film out, especially as another Buscemi-helmed film, Animal Factory, has been recommended to me before. I haven’t gotten around to that one yet, but I figured if one film of his came highly recommended, another might well be worth checking out.
Unfortunately, Trees Lounge is a bit of a mixed bag. It does show Buscemi’s talent as a director, but the film itself is a lot like its protagonist: lifeless, aimless, and not entirely likeable.
We spend a lot of time staring at Bronson Dudley’s character, but all he really does is signal the beginning and end of the film.
Tommy (Buscemi) is a ne’er-do-well who spends most of his time drinking in the Trees Lounge bar. He’s been fired from his job as an auto mechanic for stealing from the till, and his boss Rob (Anthony LaPaglia) in turn “stole” Tommy’s girlfriend Theresa (Elizabeth Bracco). He hasn’t been able to find work at any of the other auto shops in town, partly because they call his former employer for recommendations, and partly because his own car doesn’t run. Nobody wants to hire an auto mechanic who can’t fix his own auto. His brother Raymond (Buscemi’s real-life brother Michael) still works at Rob’s, which causes some strife between them. Tommy eventually gets a job driving an ice cream truck after his uncle (who owned the truck) passes away, but even then he’s still fairly incompetent at it and spends too much time at the bar.
Tommy is fully aware that his life is a mess, but puts the impetus on outside events to fix it. His ex-girlfriend is pregnant; he says that if the child is his, and she were to marry him, he’d pull himself together and turn his life around. Other characters call him on how pathetic this sounds, but it slides off him. There isn’t a redemption plot going on here. There isn’t a plot at all, in fact. There’s no through-story, no beginning or ending to the tale; the film simply picks up at one point, and stops at another. It’s a slice-of-life film in the purest sense.
And that slice pretty much always looks like this.
There’s nothing wrong with a slice-of-life film that doesn’t have a strong narrative, as long as the characters are interesting. But these aren’t. Tommy would be a side character in most films, the friendly screw-up stoner drunk who isn’t going anywhere or doing anything. He doesn’t work well as a protagonist, at least not without something to actually spur him into some form of action. The side cast is generally even less interesting than he is, being essentially more drunks but without the sympathetic focus. There are a few interesting characters, though. Carol Kane is underutilized as the bartender. Samuel L. Jackson has a fun cameo, though it’s more on the strength of it being Jackson than on the character himself. Chloë Sevigny plays a 17-year-old who hangs out with Tommy, and her scenes come closest to injecting some life and purpose into this film, but ultimately that doesn’t really go anywhere either. There’s just no reason to care while watching this film, and it’s already fading from my memory.
But although the film has its weaknesses, it does show some potential on Buscemi’s part as a director. Shots are framed interestingly, they’re clear and it’s always apparent who is supposed to be focus at any given moment. Actors who have something interesting to do portray their characters convincingly. Lighting fits the mood of the scenes very well. From a directorial standpoint, the film has some merits. It just falls short on the writing, with an absence of a plot and characters who can’t support a slice-of-life movie. Buscemi fans will probably still want to check this out, for curiosity’s sake if nothing else, but most people would be fine skipping it.