Woman dreams her way to a new `Life'

First-time director, Kalem, gets it right

MovieReview

May 28, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

***1/2

Depth and incandescence: that's what Lili Taylor has in A Slipping-Down Life. As Evie Decker, a small-town North Carolina girl who imagines herself all the way into marriage with an enigmatic local rocker named Drum Casey (Guy Pearce), Taylor hits peculiar notes of longing and fantasy and makes them resound like an Everywoman chorus.

In writer-director Toni Kalem's inspired recasting of Anne Tyler's 1970 novel (itself a real find), Evie is a bundle of notions and instincts. But she's let herself fall into the mold of a shy, awkward girl.

You can feel her distraction and bemusement from the opening shot of her carelessly cutting off a truck while making a routine turn onto a lazy road in town. She works in a rabbit costume - definitely not a bunny costume - selling hot dogs at a rundown amusement park called Kiddie Acres. She lives with her good-hearted yet reserved and out-of-it father (Tom Bower). Their home's most vital sounds of life come from the chatter on her dad's short-wave radio (he complains that there's too much Spanish out there) and the colloquies their housekeeper Clotelia (Irma P. Hall) conducts with her favorite soap operas.

Taylor lets you see Evie's anxiousness for change in everything from the way she taps her feet at the breakfast table to the hints of self-disgust that tinge her expressions of sadness or resignation. One night, tuning her radio to her favorite lovers'-request rock show, she hears Casey talk about kicking off his traces and leaving his town behind. Immediately, she feels she gets him.

Casey interrupts his songs by "speaking out": intoning poetic non sequiturs like, "If I were on fire would you burn up with me? Burn down with me?" When she goes with her friend Violet (Sara Rue) to see him perform at a club, she feels more than ever that he's talking straight to her.

This fascination fuels her decision to act on impulse. First she clicks pictures of him with an old Kodak Instamatic camera (it makes him think that she's a news photographer). Then she does something more drastic: She carves his name across her forehead.

Kalem handles this deed with astonishing sureness, especially for a first-time director. Kalem doesn't underplay the shock of Evie emerging bloody from a rock-club women's room. Instead, she immediately counters it with the dry comedy of a doctor stitching Evie up and letting her know that she spelled "Casey" backward. (She was looking in the mirror when she did it.)

The comedy and the poignancy reinforce each other: They add up to a vision that sees the glory and absurdity of romance. And when Casey himself strides into her hospital room - his drummer-manager David (John Hawkes) considers his meeting Evie a photo op - their eventual couplehood seems, as it does in the best romantic comedies, both surprising and inevitable.

Kalem shoots him in slow-motion when he first approaches his microphone at a performance and again when he first enters Evie's room at the hospital. The effect is intriguing, ambiguous. The director gets across what a big deal he is to Evie, but also suggests that this man must be studied.

And Pearce holds up under Kalem's continued scrutiny. Avoiding the abyss most actors fall into when they play rock stars, Pearce arrives at a characterization all his own. He embodies Casey as a stricken piece of masculinity, a not-so-strong, silent type, who uses lyrical expression as a refuge.

Letting brief jets of humor and sympathy shoot through his manly mask, Pearce implies, as Brando did before him, that the most potent male charisma comes from the conflict between strength and wounded sensitivity. Caught between his one-time singer mother and gas-station-manager dad, he escapes his vise only when he writes his songs and sings them - and then, for a short time, when he marries Evie.

Evie takes charge of her life and acts as a catalyst to Casey's. Her self-mutilation becomes his lucky stroke of publicity, and her presence at his concerts attracts new fans and focuses his playing (and his speaking). So there's an unusual feminist component to the story. But the movie is also about a guy facing up to the destructiveness of his male stubbornness and temper.

In a way, Evie's big moves resemble George Costanza's in the Seinfeld episode when he decides to change his luck by not following his usual habits or desires. Yet Kalem has filled out her story with such a loving hand that the movie constantly suggests new themes. Her view of a small Southern town (she actually shot the film in Texas) is like a kinetic essay about places stuck in time. (That's why Evie's use of an Instamatic flash feels right.)

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