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Friday, May 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
'Life' aims for arty, but it's just drab

By Erik Lundegaard
Special to The Seattle Times

DEANNA NEWCOMB / AP
In "A Slipping Down Life," Guy Pearce, left, plays a philosophical musician and Lili Taylor a lonely woman who becomes a regular at his shows.
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It didn't take me long to lose interest in "A Slipping Down Life," a 1999 film, starring Lili Taylor and Guy Pearce, that is only now being distributed after years of wrangling between its producer and director.

Taylor plays Evie Decker, who's living a life of quiet desperation in a small North Carolina town. She works at a half-filled amusement park. Her boss (Bruno Kirby) berates her. Her good-natured father (Tom Bower) communicates more with his short-wave radio. "I got Russia," he says one night. Mornings they eat breakfast in silence. The eggs boiling on the stove crack open, but Evie and her dad don't.

It's a small, suffocating, lonely existence, so it's not surprising that the movie is adapted from a novel by Anne Tyler ("The Accidental Tourist," "Breathing Lessons"), who specializes in small, suffocating, lonely existences.

"You ever get the feeling it wouldn't matter if you lived or died?" Evie asks her friend, Violet (Sara Rue). Soon Evie is driving recklessly. She takes her hands off the steering wheel and drifts into oncoming traffic. This is about when my interest began to wane. I thought: "If you have to go, go, but try not to take anyone with you."

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"A Slipping Down Life," with Lili Taylor, Guy Pearce, Irma P. Hall, John Hawkes. Written and directed by Toni Kalem, from a novel by Anne Tyler. 111 minutes. Rated R for language including sexual references. Uptown.

At the same time, Evie passes a church marquee that reads: "You must be born again. Are you?" and she stares intently at the sign — backward — in her rearview mirror. The symbolism is obvious. The only question is how she'll be reborn.

Answer: One evening she hears a local musician, Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce), jawing on the radio. Casey's got a seductive voice, but pauses midsong to drone out enigmatic phrases like a B-grade Buddhist.

"You think you're invisible but I see you," he says. The local DJ doesn't get it but Evie does, and she drags her friends to local dives, where she competes for Drumstrings' attention with pretty girls in denim miniskirts and choke-chain collars.

How does she stand out? Easy. She takes a piece of broken glass and carves his name on her forehead. Because she does it in a mirror, it comes out backward — YESAC — like the church sign in her rearview mirror. This is her stigmata, and it makes her ecstatic. "I believe this is the best thing I've ever done," she says, glowing.
 
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A friendship with the singer starts, sputters, catches again, then turns romantic. It becomes the movie, and the movie becomes conventional. Drumstrings is all cheekbones and twang, and he refuses to compromise his art, by which he means his droning, enigmatic talk. He wants to "get out." So does she.

Movies about lonely people with small wants can work (see "Italian for Beginners"), but not here. The tone is moody, the dialogue uninteresting. The secondary characters are there to make us feel better about the main characters — Evie is deeper than her friends, while Drumstrings is more principled than his — but I didn't particularly like the main characters, and their relationship always felt like a mistake, even when the movie attempts to assure us otherwise.

Independent films like to equate smallness with authenticity, but sometimes, unfortunately, they're just small.

Erik Lundegaard: elundegaard@comcast.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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