A Slipping Down Life
A Slipping Down Life

USA, 1999. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Cast: Lili Taylor, Guy Pearce, John Hawkes, Sara Rue, Tom Bower, Irma P. Hall, Veronica Cartwright, Marshall Bell, Shawnee Smith, Bruno Kirby
Writer: Toni Kalem, based on the novel by Anne Tyler
Original Music: score by Peter Himmelman; songs by Joe Henry, Ron Sexsmith, Vic Chestnut, and Robyn Hitchcock
Cinematography: Michael Barrow
Producer: Richard Raddon
Director: Toni Kalem


Grade: C- Review by Carlo Cavagna

I magine this scenario: You're a young woman living in Loserville, working as a hot-dog vendor in a rabbit suit at the Kiddie Acres. You feel misunderstood and stifled by your surroundings. You think of yourself as plain. You develop a crush on a local musician when you hear him interviewed on the radio. You go to see him play, and discover that he's gorgeous. Trashy woman after trashy woman throws herself at him, even though they don't really get his music. You do. It speaks to you, profoundly. So what do you do to attract his attention? Well, if you're Evie Decker (Lili Taylor), you take a piece of glass, and you carve his name into your forehead!

How can you possibly explain such a thing? Well, Evie is convinced that Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce), the musician she's so enraptured with, is the embodiment of freedom of expression and freedom from restrictions. This is largely because he has a tendency to range off into spoken word digressions in the middle of his songs that make Jim Morrison sound like Alfred Lord Tennyson. Impulsively, she snaps a photo of Drumstrings (“Drums” for short) at the club and feels irrationally proud of herself. If she'd thought about it, she might not have done it, she remarks. The next step in Evie's development as a free spirit is to carve Drums' name into her forehead.

Guy Pearce and Lili Taylor
Guy Pearce and Lili Taylor in A Slipping Down Life.

Oh, that wacky Evie. What a card! Look—the name came out backwards because Evie cut herself using a mirror. Isn't that funny? Well, she succeeds in attracting Drums' attention, as well as that of his manager David (John Hawkes), who is grateful for the publicity and arranges a photo op. At the hospital, Evie refuses the services of a plastic surgeon, commenting, “This is one thing I'll never back down on.” The rest of the film involves Evie and Drums awkwardly getting to know each other, and the romance that ensues.

Based on an Anne Tyler novel, A Slipping Down Life has that quiet, classically East-Coast Anne Tyler feel even though it's not set in Baltimore (as almost all Anne Tyler novels, like The Accidental Tourist, are). The story develops languidly and contains few large narrative events, preferring to track its characters' emotional development. It's Lili Taylor's film, of course, an extraordinary actor (I Shot Andy Warhol, The Haunting) who will probably never get the recognition she deserves. Guy Pearce is perfect—pretty enough for the role, but open and approachable, and as an accomplished musician with an affinity for Jeff Buckley, Peter Gabriel, and Kate Bush, the inevitable choice for the slightly spacey Drum.

However, it's hard to take A Slipping Down Life seriously when Evie is obviously disturbed, and no one's doing anything about it. “I always knew you'd come out of this if I just let you be,” says her father (Tom Bower) when Evie cuts her bangs to cover her scars. By the end, of course, the film is trying to make the case that Evie is not seriously disturbed; it's just that she sees more clearly than anyone else. But let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a woman who carved a man's name into her forehead, shall we?

When a film that's been sitting on the shelf for several years is finally released theatrically, it's usually because a member of the cast has suddenly become a star. Neither Guy Pearce nor Lili Taylor has suddenly become a star—Pearce seems hell-bent on not being one, and Taylor probably never will be one—so it's difficult to imagine what possessed Lions Gate Entertainment to dust off this mediocre indie five years after it debuted at Sundance (in 1999). The film hasn't improved with age. Evie's extravagant act of self-mutilation is not enough to spice up the humdrum plain-girl-meets-pretty-boy-and-teaches-him-the-meaning-of-love story, but it does make it difficult to buy into either character, which, in turn, makes it difficult to remain interested in how it will all work out. Not that it's very hard to guess.

Review © May 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

  Comment on this review on the boards  

  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page