Every Tom DiCillo film reviewed

living in oblivion steve buscemi catherine keener 2

Reviewed: Johnny Suede (1991), Living in Oblivion (1995), Box of Moonlight (1996), The Real Blonde (1998), Double Whammy (2001) and Delirious (2006).

I was going to email Tom DiCillo a link to this page, but his blog indicates he can’t handle criticism. It’s twenty years since Johnny Suede, and he’s still complaining about specific reviews from back then – he probably wouldn’t appreciate my description: ‘…meanders between bland dialogue and embarrassing drama.’ He frequently collaborated with two of the “Holy Indie Trinity” (Catherine Keener, Steve Buscemi, but not Parker Posey) – hey, I just invented that term! At university, I wrote about Don DeLillo in some coursework, but called him Tom by accident – evidence he had some effect on my life.

Johnny Suede (1991) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Tom DiCillo
Starring: Brad Pitt, Catherine Keener, Calvin Levels, Nick Cave
“If it’s so obvious, then what am I doing standing here?”

johnny suede brad pitt guitar tom dicilloTom DiCillo’s low-budget, static debut would have faded into obscurity if it wasn’t for its cast: Brad Pitt, Nick Cave and Catherine Keener, all before they were famous. It’s a character study that meanders between bland dialogue and embarrassing drama. Brad Pitt plays the titular character as a musician who loves his hair; a caricature that’s neither a comedy not satire – just odd, slow and dull.

Living in Oblivion
(1995) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Tom DiCillo
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Peter Dinklage
“I’ll tell you one thing right now – I am never ever going to do another fucking low-budget movie.”

living in oblivion steve buscemi catherine keenerThe further you get into Living in Oblivion, the more it reveals about Tom DiCillo, a man who said: “Making a movie is the most tedious, boring, painful experiences, and that’s just when something goes right.” Living in Oblivion is so low-budget that the actors had to work for free. It’s also  about the making of a low-budget film that also happens to be called Living in Oblivion. Steve Buscemi plays the frustrated director – I don’t think it’s a coincidence his haircut is modelled after DiCillo’s.

 “It’s your call, Nick – his acting or his face?”
“For some reason, I thought that we could get both.”

You instantly know who each character is, just by how they dress and sit, or what their role on set is. It also helps that despite DiCillo’s denial in interviews, Living in Oblivion is clearly a parody of the making of Johnny Suede. The embarrassing bedroom dialogue of Johnny Suede is recreated for the film-within-the-film – it was Catherine Keener and Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede, and in Living in Oblivion it’s Catherine Keener and a character called Chad (played by a Brad Pitt doppelganger) who discuss how ‘love is like champagne’. DiCillo’s pastiche of independent films of that era is particularly effective by the repetition of hackneyed dialogue from the film-with-the-film. It’s incredibly self-aware, even when you ignore parts of the script that reference how DiCillo wrote Living in Oblivion for Catherine Keener, and the fourth wall is stroked when Steve Buscemi’s character is called a friend of Quentin Tarantino.

“Did you know we were filming?”

The final act has an actor walk off the fictional Living in Oblivion for its half-baked depiction of dream sequences – a comment on a film within a film that’s depicting the making of another film. When the sound technician insists that thirty seconds of room ambience must be recorded, everyone’s fantasies are played out – tellingly, DiCillo lets slip his ambition when Steve Buscemi visualises himself winning an award for a brand new category (“Best film ever made by a human being”) and using the speech to list who he doesn’t want to thank.

Box of Moonlight
(1996) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Tom DiCillo
Starring: John Turturro, Sam Rockwell, Catherine Keener
“He’s just one of those guys who goes through life like a robot. He’s like a damn machine.”

box of moonlight tom dicilloIn Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo astutely parodied how to make a low-budget indie film, including how to insert dream sequences and record the ambience of room.  One year later, he brought out a new film, Box of Moonlight, a low-budget indie film with dream sequences and room ambience.

“You’ve been lost for a long, long time. Am I right? Have you found Jesus, Al?”

John Turturro pretends to be on a work trip to spend a week away from his family. He hallucinates that time reverses, and wishes his misery would do the same. He makes his son cry over the phone for being poor at mathematics.

“Some people can get an electric shock just by looking at you.”

Turturro revisits a lake his father used to take him on holidays. It’s deserted, but free of his hateful co-workers and resentful family. Given the close proximity to Living in Oblivion, DiCillo exhibits playful self-awareness by introducing life-changing characters without names – Sam Rockwell plays “The Kid” (or just “Kid”, if you prefer), and Catherine Keener has an atypically ‘dumb’ role as a phone sex worker called Floatie.

“I don’t believe it. I’ve just spent two days driving in a Goddamn circle.”

By following DiCillo’s simple vision, even a shot of a lake can bring humour and pathos. At sad moments, the camera slants, as if the camera man tilts his head in sympathy. Turturro has always wanted freedom, and it’s fascinating to see how he handles the looseness of being able to wake up in a lake and sleep by a fire; it all builds up to Turturo shooting a big clock – how’s that for symbolism?

The Real Blonde (1997) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Tom DiCillo
Starring: Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Maxwell Caufield
“What are those two going to do for the rest of their lives? Stand around and stare at each other, all loving and unconditional? Do you think they’ll ever have an argument the way real people do?”

the real blondeMatthew Modine takes the lead role as an actor who can’t get a job because he feels soap operas ‘aren’t real acting’. However, he sort-of gets his break as an extra in a Madonna video. Tom DiCillo steps out of his comfort zone by making it screwball comedy, and he fails – the musical cues are too loud and frequent, and characters laugh at each other’s awful jokes while DiCillo pats himself on the back. “Oh, I see – you are using Stanislavski’s famous horoscope method.”

Double Whammy
(2001) – 2.5/10

Director/Writer: Tom DiCillo
Starring: Denis Leary, Elizabeth Hurley, Luis Guzman
“Is that too symbolic?”

double whammyAt the centre of The Real Blonde is the independent filmmaker’s dilemma: how do you compromise your career as an artist while needing to pay the rent? A few years later, Tom DiCillo made Double Whammy, a film that’s so desperate for mainstream acceptance, you want to look away. At the centre is a policeman trying to make amends for losing a gun, which was found by a child who shot a criminal. It’s sleazy, cheesy and stupid – there’s some commentary in a subplot where two screenwriters argue over violence in cinema, but it’s not as smart as DiCillo thinks, nor does it excuse everything else.

Given that DiCillo tries to grab mainstream audiences with Double Whammy, the irony is that it went straight-to-DVD. DiCillo’s blog is unrepentant about his anger that the promise of a theatrical release was reneged – I couldn’t find anything where he says the film deserves to be seen for its quality.

(2006) –5.5/10

Director/Writer: Tom DiCillo
Starrinng: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt
“Send the crackhead to get us coffee.”

delirious tom dicillo steve buscemiTom DiCillo’s blog is less an advertisement for his films, but someone who wants empathy from strangers. I imagine a bitter man who spend years wondering why no one would produce his films, while wasting his days on a wordpress blog (hey, he sounds like me!). Delirious details the paparazzi’s relationship with celebrities, but I sense DiCillo’s jealousy and frustrations in every word ; when the film goes in interesting directions, it’s ruined by a rant about the unfair world or strange wish fulfilment – a sexy pop singer picks a stranger standing in public, leading to the film’s ludicrous central romance.

There are enough surreal shots in Delirious to keep you occupied (dutch angles, a close-up of a fly), but DiCillo’s genuine bitterness isn’t utilised – it’s diluted by a mediocre script.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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1 Response to Every Tom DiCillo film reviewed

  1. Ronny Mussavio says:

    Yo, dude! I got to hand it to you. You really, really nailed these reviews. I love your writing. I’m serious. I don’t even know this dicillio guy or seen any of his crappy movies but now I want to punch him in the face.

    Wow, where do I begin!? First, I love the way you totally went for it. Some reviewers would wimp out and try to say something good about at least one tiney token thing but you just totally reamed this scumbag. That took ballz! Seriously, your writing was so good it made me just want to walk up to him, you know just out of nowhere, on some street, and just pow punch him in the face. Do you know where he lives?

    I feel like your words were really speaking to me. Like we got a lot in common. What other film directors do you hate? It would be great if we could hook up or something. I kind of want to be a reviewer too. I hate a lot of directors. Do you like Tarantino? I hate him. Well, sort of. But, he’s so cool and famous it’s hard to hate him. If you don’t hate him then I’ll think about not hating him.

    But seriously, who else do you hate? Can you write some reviews of them? I hate these people. They think they’re so important than us. I say trash em all. You know who I hate the most is the dude who made that movie that just came out Melanckoly. What a pretentious twat. Do you hate him? I want to punch him too. Do you know his address?

    Anyway, bro. Great work. Keep it up. I love your ‘tude. It’s just like mine.

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