Review: Trees Lounge (1996)
Dir: Steve Buscemi
Running Time: 95 mins
You only get to say it once so here it is: Trees Lounge is the best film about drinking I have ever seen.
I’m not alone in my alcoholism or in my fondness for the film. The dean of American film critics, Roger Ebert, himself a recovering alcoholic, called Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut “the most accurate portrait of the daily saloon drinker I have ever seen.”
The plot is simple: Tommy is an unemployed auto mechanic who has been recently fired for stealing money from his boss. He spends his days and nights at Trees Lounge, drinking and repeating jokes and trying to pick up women using nefarious tactics. When he can afford it, which is not often, he snorts blow. He tells himself and anyone who will listen that he could stop drinking, if ____.
He doesn’t give himself many reasons to stop drinking over the course of the movie, but he does provide myriad reasons to continue. He drinks to be with his friends. He drinks to lower his inhibitions and meet women. He drinks to remember and he drinks to forget.
But drinking, even in the cheapest of establishments, costs money. Desperate for income, Tommy takes a job driving an ice cream truck around the suburbs and his route brings him into contact with Debbie, a seventeen year old girl portrayed by Chloë Sevigny, who starts riding along with him. The pair form an offbeat friendship based on sardonic humour and a kind of bemused fatalism. Perhaps inevitably, Tommy comes on to Debbie after a hazy night of drinking, and though Tommy swears that “nothing happened…we just made out,” Debbie’s father, played by Daniel Baldwin, draws his own conclusions and comes after Tommy with a baseball bat. As one barfly wryly observes to Tommy afterward, “it looks like he drew a conclusion on your head.”
Plotwise, that’s about it, except there’s more. So much more.
Like any good dive bar, the film is packed with losers and loners, an impressive cast including Sopranos regulars Michael Imperioli and John Ventimiglia, as well as Samuel L. Jackson in a memorable cameo (his character Wendell drops by the Lounge for a beer while on the clock, unaware that his boss is there too). That boss is Mike, brilliantly played by character actor Mark Boone Junior. Mike owns a trucking company and has been on “vacation” for a couple of weeks, vacation meaning never leaving the bar except maybe to sleep. He drinks and smokes and scoffs at Tommy’s silly dreams. In his drunken dishevelment and shambling attitude, Mike is so believable, radiates with such reality, that one can almost imagine him stumbling out of the Trees Lounge universe and into Memento’s, whereupon he deviously rents multiple motel rooms to Guy Pearce’s amnesiac Leonard before heading to a bar across the street.
Trees Lounge opens with Connie – a classic sympathetic bartender played by Carol Kane – closing up what appears to be a vacant bar. It isn’t until the camera pans over to a booth that we see Tommy, fast asleep on the seat. Connie kicks him awake, establishing the maternal role she plays throughout the movie, but Tommy wants one more shot. He buys one for Mike too, who is so drunk he can barely get his cigarette to his mouth.
“What’s your name again?” Tommy asks him.
Drinkers love bars because they feel less diseased in them. They feel among friends, even if they can’t remember anybody’s name. Drinkers don’t go to the bar just to get drunk. They could do that at home. They go to the bar to chase a feeling, a feeling beyond mere inebriation, a long sought sensation, some unearthly bliss they once felt long ago, perhaps in the womb, something far and gone. It’s the chase that keeps them drinking night after night, not merely a desire to be drunk. And like all drinkers, the ones who populate Trees Lounge are insane, since doing something over and over and expecting a different outcome is the very definition of insanity. But they’re lovably insane, Tommy and Mike especially.
Throughout the film Tommy pines for his ex-girlfriend, who is pregnant with a child that may or may not be his, complains about his car, smokes cigarettes, plies a sullen veteran named Bill with dumb questions about the war, and considers ways he might improve his lot in life, ways that never seem to involve quitting drinking. As bleak as Tommy’s life gets, this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, as Ebert put it in his glowing review, “drunks always think that if they could fix all the things that are wrong, then they could stop drinking. It never occurs to them to stop drinking first.”
Accordingly, it isn’t until Tommy gets mashed by Baldwin’s baseball bat that he starts to consider maybe thinking about possibly contemplating quitting drinking, and even then he persists. There is almost something heroic about such determination. He still thinks that he can quit drinking if ____. And once he does quit, his life will finally begin.
Of course, the film ends on a tragic note, with the rail thin Bill, clearly devised to be an older version of Tommy, having suffered a vague medical emergency offscreen. “He just stopped breathing,” notes a regular. Everybody at the bar agrees to head down to the hospital to check up on the poor old guy, just as soon as they’ve finished their drink.
Tommy is shocked at the news. “Shouldn’t somebody be with him?” he asks the room, aghast.
“Yeah I’m gonna go in a few minutes,” comes an answer.
“C’mon, you’ve been saying that for an hour. By the time you get there he’ll be dead already.”
“Hey! I’ll go when I feel like it. Alright? When I’m ready. Then I’ll go.”
“He’s gonna be alright.”
“Oh c’mon, don’t talk like an idiot Stan.”
“Don’t call me an idiot, Jackie.”
“Well then don’t talk like one!”
“Listen, he’s gonna be fine. They just hafta to clean out his system is all.”
“What the hell are you talking about ‘clean out his system’?”
“Just shut up Jackie.”
And on and on and on into the night.
Eventually Jackie heads over to the jukebox and feeds it a quarter for a song, (The Ink Spots “I Understand,” a ridiculously appropriate song choice by Buscemi). Tommy, who is initially disgusted that nobody seems to truly care about what happened to Bill, swiftly realizes that he doesn’t really want to leave the bar either. So he stays right where he is. Where he’s always been and where he’ll always be.
There’s a moral here somewhere and I guess I’ll take a swing at it.
Throughout Trees Lounge Tommy convinces himself that there is something heroic to his drinking, that he is doing something more important, more romantic than just getting bombed every night. You get the sense that Tommy feels his drinking makes him more alive, makes him more alert to the possibilities of life. Trees Lounge makes him feel like a somebody because the people who drink there are just like him. Moreover, they act as a sympathetic audience he can project his dim hopes and delusions upon.
But now, sitting in Bill’s regular barstool while its previous occupant dies alone in the hospital, Tommy understands the lie he’d been telling himself. Drinking doesn’t enrich his life. It doesn’t improve his prospects. Bars aren’t magical places where anything can happen, they are dour rooms where a bunch of people addicted to the same drug tend to run into each other. Drinking has bankrupted him, both financially and spiritually, yet here he is again, alone with everybody, clutching a bottle possessively like a prisoner protecting his gruel, waiting for his life to finally begin.
Trees Lounge is a heartbreaking, unflinching depiction of alcoholism. That it manages to be funny without sacrificing authenticity or grit is a testament to the talent of its director, and to the sad craziness of the disease itself.