Trees Lounge (1997): Steve Buscemi’s Directing Debut

A serio-comedy about a ne’er-do-well barfly, Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge is also in the vein of Cassavetes, a rueful look at the petty feuds and uneventful existence of some working-class people in a New York suburb. Seymour Cassel, Buscemi’s co-star in In the Soup, provides a further link to Cassavetes, here playing Tommy’s Uncle Al.

The film’s greatest virtue is Buscemi’s knowledge of the characters inside out. His autobiographical film is a projection of what life might have been had Buscemi never left Valley Stream to pursue an acting career. Judging by the film, it would have been a sorry life marked by irresponsible behavior and underachievement.

At 31, Tommy (Buscemi) is a loser described by his own friends as a screw up. He is fired from his job as an auto mechanic for “borrowing” money without informing his boss. Tommy’s former girlfriend (Elizabeth Bracco), who may or may not be pregnant with his child, has moved in with his angry ex-boss (Anthony LaPaglia). Living in a tiny apartment above a bar, Tommy has no money to fix his car or buy drinks.

Further complicating life are represented by Debbie (Chloe Sevigny), an adolescent with a crush on Tommy. Temptation overcomes Tommy, and their ill-advised night together infuriates Debbie’s hot-headed father. Tommy must face up to the repercussions of his mischiefs, which ultimately damage him more than other people.

Epitomizing the working-class milieu is the neighborhood bar, Trees Lounge, in which neither decor nor jukebox songs have changed in years. Spending his time hustling drinks and one-night stands, Tommy gets kicked out of the place for excessive behavior. The only person who spends more time at the bar is old Bill who never moves from his stool. At a crossroads, without even knowing it, Tommy is young enough to break out and make something of his life. But if he doesn’t, he can see his future down at the other end of the bar, where Bill drinks himself to death. Ice cream vendor Uncle Al presents Tommy with a “demeaning opportunity” of taking over his route in the neighborhood, which draws Tommy out of the bar.

Neither the comic nor the melodramatic elements are punched up in a manipulative way. Taking his cue from Cassavetes, Buscemi roots his film in characterization and acting, with the humor stemming directly from the characters. Without forcing a dramatic structure or obvious climax, and without condescension, Buscemi conveys the dead-end nature of aimless lives. He refrains from giving his film the self-conscious “downtown hipness,” typical of the indie pictures in which he has appeared as an actor. The realistic setting and characters’ verisimilitude keep Trees Lounge afloat, despite limited scope.

Buscemi handles the material with casualness; his characters are not caught up in a big dramatic crisis, but in petty quarrels. There are no bad or good guys, just people struggling to get by. For Tommy, this means getting his car fixed so he can go back to work and buy drinks. Laced with the kinds of scenes and performances that define Cassavetes’ work, the film boasts a cast of such indie staples as Samuel L. Jackson, Mimi Rogers, Chloe Sevigny, and Elizabeth Bracco. Above all, it’s Buscemi’s triumph as an actor that makes Tommy both pathetic and sympathetic. Buscemi has specialized in playing losers whose intelligence can’t save them from humiliation and defeat; he’s funny because of his profane complaining.
In Trees Lounge, Buscemi successfully transfers his saturnine character and sensibility to a bar which is a cave for losers in a lawn paradise. Observed with a compassion worthy of Eugene O’Neill, the movie shows how the young and restless Tommy struggles to distinguish himself from this drinking community.

Despite its grim subject, the film maintains a rambunctious tone: The drinkers are funny, because each one has an ego to defend and cultivate. A low-key comedy, Trees Lounge is Buscemi’s testimonial to the gallantry of failure.