Review: Living in Oblivion
April 26, 2000
Living In Oblivion; Directed and written byTom DiCillo; A Sony Pictures Classics releaseThe wonder is that there aren't more movies about moviemaking given that this fraught group activity readily provides plot essentials such as interpersonal tension and intrapersonal delusion (not to mention mass hysteria). If The Player kicked off the recent trend of satires about the business, on-the-set pictures so far have been rare, with Truffaut's Day for Night still being the one to beat. With half of all high school grads (I'm taking an informal survey) thinking about going into movies, clearly there's a public primed to see beyond the frame. Or thinking that they can. Demystification can create more mist. A minor but effective character in Tom DiCillo's charming Living in Oblivion is a quirky fog machine. DiCillo--cinematographer on Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and director of the whimsical yet melancholy Johnny Suede--divides his cryptically titled second feature into three parts: The first turns out to be the director's anxiety dream; the second, an actor's anxiety dream; the third, the real-life shooting of an anxiety dream sequence. If I'm blithely giving away a couple of punch lines, let me just say that dreams, here as in Johnny Suede, are no stranger than reality, and that reality--represented tentatively by the final segment--serves up the oddest images. Oblivion's three skits are of equal weight, yet DiCillo poises the film more to turn on itself than to progress. Our fictional indie filmmaker, played by Steve Buscemi, is named Nick Reve, and you should know that reve is French for dream. Nick may be dreaming, but he's also revving up for another brutish day on the set. Today, he's shooting a difficult, supposedly critical sequence, "Ellen talks to Mom." Ellen is played by Nicole, a winning though insecure actress, who, in turn, is played by Catherine Keener. Nervous Nicole gets picked up by an inscrutable driver (Tom Jarmusch, brother of Jim), who next picks up Cora (Rica Martens), the actress playing Mom in the day's psychodrama. On the set, Nick is patient but tense, as shot after shot is spoiled by screwups--a boom entering the frame (twice), the focus-puller's distraction, a passing boombox. Nicole eventually loses it but the spacey Cora, a true Mom, comes to her rescue and the two improvise a poignant sequence that has onlookers weeping. Too bad the lovesick leatherboy cameraman, Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), is in the john vomiting his guts out. Oblivion's first third was shot as a half-hour short, a valentine to Keener, who'd been in Johnny Suede. Then DiCillo was encouraged to turn the piece into a feature -- a pleasure, he says in the press notes, since the small ensemble shoot was so easy compared to Suede's aggravations. Much in this farce will appeal to those who've spent time on a set. For example, Wanda-the-assistant director (Danielle von Zerneck), all honey-toned with Nick and foulmouthed with the crew. Like every other woman on the set, Wanda is panting to get into bed with the leading man, a callow cad named Chad Palomino (James Le Gros). After spending one night with his costar, he's ready for the next victim. Le Gros, who's only in the second segment (Nicole's nightmare), is as puffed in his tux as an Emperor Penguin. You can't say DiCillo favors his director over actors and crew, however. Buscemi's stressed-out Nick is a chump and appears to have no talent whatsoever; his precious movie looks incredibly dopey. Which gives you an idea of the movie's quite severe limitations. This may be a comedy about moviemaking but it's not a movie about movies. If you believe rumors, Living in Oblivion's in-joke is that the jerky Palpmino is based on Suede star Brad Pitt. If this seems hard to believe, given Pitt's sweet, low-key, perfectly modulated Johnny, it just goes to show how smoothly the camera lies, how impossible it is for fools like you and me to tell actors from roles, stars from the luster they cast, or angels from assholes.