- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

“The Station Agent” inaugurates the writing-directing career of Tom McCarthy. A semi-familiar character actor from films, television and the New York stage, he demonstrates a promising, albeit faltering, touch with both settings and low-key human interest while evoking a specific nostalgic attachment to railroads.

The title alludes to an abandoned depot in a small New Jersey town, Newfoundland. It becomes the destination of a reclusive dwarf named Finbar McBride, portrayed by Peter Dinklage, who inherits the property from his late employer, the owner of a model train store in Hoboken.

Not a motorist, Fin walks the rails, a favorite pastime, to his new home, which becomes a bit of a Grand Central Station for sleepy Newfoundland. Somehow, solitary and closemouthed Fin, who wants to be alone as fervently as Greta Garbo, becomes the reluctant magnet and sounding board for a collection of talkative and needful new acquaintances. The indispensable chatterbox is a food vendor named Joe, a very winning role for Bobby Cannavale, who helps compensate for the long silences that surround the protagonist.

Fin is also enough of a babe magnet to suggest a new incarnation for the station: a lonely-hearts hostel. His privacy is promptly disrupted by a middle-aged runaway named Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a despondent painter and divorcee who is so absent-minded behind the wheel that she menaces Fin on two occasions, although he’s an exceptionally watchful pedestrian. Gallantly, he permits Olivia to sleep off a boozy, apologetic and possibly sex-starved visit, flopping on his secondhand couch while the host sacks out in a bathtub. Later, a lonely young librarian named Emily (Michelle Williams of “Dawson’s Creek”) jumps to the conclusion that Fin might be an ideal shoulder to cry on.

When pressed, Fin insists that people mistake the impression conveyed by his reserve: that still waters run deep and beckon to be stirred by lovelorn nymphs. The comic potential in this kind of misapprehension is never exploited as playfully as one hopes.

Although Joe, Olivia and Fin are meant to discover a gratifying mutual friendship, the idea always seems dependent on Joe’s humorous congeniality and absence of self-pity. You’re not sure that Olivia and Fin are capable of sustaining their end of the conversational and outlook-improving work.

The filmmaker remains a little too fond of the Byronic glamour in Fin’s solitude. He drags his feet about timing and fine-tuning Fin’s emotional surrender to new friends and prospects.

Peter Dinklage may be the most handsome dwarf actor in the history of the medium, so the temptation to linger over him as a brooding and soulful camera subject is understandable, if misguided. However, Fin’s loner act outlives its usefulness, leaving Mr. McCarthy in the curious position of painting himself into a corner despite having a different sort of leading man and protagonist to scrutinize.

The movie’s generous impulses cushion many of its conceptual shortcomings and weak episodes, but the underwhelming note does threaten to engulf “The Station Agent” while you await some kind of climax. Nevertheless, one can understand why Mr. McCarthy’s movie was an audience favorite when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

**

TITLE: “The Station Agent”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Tom McCarthy. Cinematography by Oliver Bokelberg. Production design by John Paino. Costume design by Jeanne Dupont. Music by Stephen Trask

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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