Thursday, May 27, 2004

“A Slipping-Down Life” first screened at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and it took writer-director Toni Kalem another five years to find a distributor for this liberty-taking adaptation of Anne Tyler’s 1970 novel.

Miss Kalem, a lapsed TV actress, tries everything she knows at least once in this, her first and so far only feature, grasping for indie-auteur novelty and weird-coolness, not to mention every shade of green known to the human eye.

The most inspired choices she makes are musical, commissioning good original songs from Ron Sexsmith, Joe Henry and Robyn Hitchcock to stand in for the tunes of Bertram “Drumstrings” Casey (Guy Pearce), a fly-by-night singer-songwriter from small-town North Carolina who day-jobs as an exterminator.

Mr. Pearce, who shot this movie before filming his jittery tour de force in “Memento” (2000), does an OK job of fretting basic guitar chords, and he sings for real. His voice is half-good here. Too bad, then, that it still looks like he’s lip-syncing on camera.

Drum, as he’s known for short, finds a peculiarly obsessive admirer in Evie Decker (Lili Taylor of “Six Feet Under”), a shy, insular, too-young-to-look-frumpy employee of a local amusement park.

During a powder-room break at the Unicorn, a grimy roadhouse where Drum has regular gigs, Evie bloodily carves Drum’s surname into her forehead with a shard of glass, creating a minor sensation in the local press and winning the bemused attention of the Byronic bad boy she’d been admiring from afar. It also impresses drummer David Elliot (John Hawkes), who doubles as Drum’s headline-hungry publicist.

The twist is that her carving was done in the mirror, yielding the jumble “YESAC.”

“Who’s Yesac?” Evie is periodically asked. The tattoo-scar quickly recedes into the movie’s backdrop of off-kilter, picturesque whimsies.

In a kind of up-from-the-bootstraps variation on the Southern Gothic tradition, Evie is proud of her self-disfiguration; she means it to show seriousness about wanting to take control of her life and escape the dead-end boredom of Fuquay-Varina, N.C.

Miss Taylor imbues Evie with so much earnestness that she becomes almost admirable. Those closest to her don’t know quite how to handle her impulsive confidence, especially when it escalates into a city-hall marriage to Drum.

Her father (Tom Bower), a cardigan-wearing widower who whiles away evenings listening to foreign-language broadcasts over the radio (“There’s too much Spanish in the world,” he reckons), tries the soft-pedal approach, while housemaid Clotelia (Irma P. Hall, lately of “The Ladykillers”) is more sternly common-sensical.

The Decker household is full of real-feeling love and engaging quirks, but where “Life” fails to convince is with the relationship between Evie and Drum. Initially, Drum finds Evie a good-luck charm, but when the luck dries up, Miss Kalem flounders to find a replacement.

The director is fond of wide shots of a cadaverous downtown (the movie was filmed outside Austin, Texas, not in Carolina), as if to emphasize the hemmed-in horizons that Evie and Drum’s love is supposed to transcend.

Soon, there’s talk of Nashville and of cutting a record, which shows how all-too-normal this movie — for all its art-house ambition — really is.


TITLE: “A Slipping-Down Life”

RATING: R (Profanity, sexual references)

CREDITS: Directed by Toni Kalem. Produced by Richard Raddon. Written by Miss Kalem, based on Anne Tyler’s 1970 novel. Cinematography by Michael F. Barrow. Original music by Peter Himmelman.

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes.



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