In the Soup: Rockwell’s Sundance Fest Winning Comedy, Starring Seymour Cassel

Seymour Cassel’s appearances in Cassavetes’ films (Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz) prompted Alexander Rockwell to write the part of Joe in his comedy In the Soup specifically for him.

The improvisation of Cassel (and the other actors) and Phil Parmet’s black-and-white cinematography feel like a tribute to Cassavetes.

Like Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, In the Soup, a playful film with darkly comic twists, also concerns an idealistic indie filmmaker dreaming of glory.

Living in a low-rent, walk-up tenement, Aldolpho Rollo (Steve Buscemi) displays on his walls a poster of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. He envisions a future when tour buses will visit his apartment and a plaque will commemorate his struggles, a time when Angelica (Jennifer Beals, Rockwell’s wife), his beautiful neighbor, will be nice to him. For now, though, with his landlord on his case, he’s desperate for money.

Aldolpho’s meeting with underground producers Barbara and Monty (played by Carol Kane and Jim Jarmusch) doesn’t turn out the way he expected. When his mother can’t help anymore, Aldolpho is forced to sell his favorite books, the most precious of which is a massive screenplay for a film called Unconditional Surrender. He places an ad for his script, which brings Joe (Cassel) into his life. Refusing to recognize any social, moral or legal constraints, Joe lives by his own rules. Says Aldolpho in his voice-over narration: “Joe had his way of making people feel important, even though you knew he was taking you for a ride.”

In their first meeting, Joe introduces the nervous director to his topless girlfriend, Dang (Pat Moya), hands him $1000, and threatens him with a gun, all in a matter of seconds. Before Aldolpho can even breathe, Joe announces that the two of them are “in the soup” together. “I’ve decided,” Joe announces, “I want art to be an important part of my life.” Aldolpho can’t help but give in to Joe’s energetic enthusiasm, which means hanging out with Skippy (Will Patton), Joe’s psychotic hemophiliac brother, and getting involved in illegal schemes based on Joe’s belief that “before you make films, you have to make money.”

Rockwell, whose previously disappointing features were little seen, made the film on a shoestring, borrowing money from his mother-in-law’s pension fund. Basing In the Soup on his own experience, he and co-scripter Tim Kissel have constructed a light tale about the “emotional education”–basic training–of a young artist.

Like DiCillo’s screen heroes, Aldolpho is not only a tyro director but an immature man; his friendship with Joe forces him to engage in “real” life and ultimately get a life of his own. At once tough and funny, irresistible and impossible, a lover one minute, a potential killer the next, Cassel gives an eccentric performance that overwhelms the picture. But somehow Cassel’s self-indulgent acting is an asset in a film marred by narrow vision, meandering pacing and arbitrary resolution.