For a film about a musician, “A Slipping Down Life” is seriously tone-deaf.
Five years after it screened at Sundance, the debut from writer-director Toni Kalem plays everything wrong — comedy and drama, fighting and reconciliation, marriage and death.
The most glaring example of this is when mousey Evie (Lili Taylor), who’s smitten with small-town rock star Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce), carves his last name on her forehead with a shard of glass in the ladies room during one of his concerts.
Evie is led staggering from the club with blood dripping down her face as stunned audience members gawk. Cut to a shot of an ambulance speeding toward the hospital, with jaunty, jokey music playing in the background.
Kalem (who plays Angie Bonpensiero, Big Pussy’s wife, on “The Sopranos”) has adapted Anne Tyler’s novel with an emphasis on idiosyncrasies, and the self-consciousness of the quirkiness is suffocating.
Evie dresses up as a giant bunny rabbit to sell hot dogs at a run-down kids’ amusement park. She lives with her widower father (Tom Bower), a sort of stereotypical nerd who spends all his time fiddling with his ham radio.
Her best friend (Sara Rue, now of the sitcom “Less Than Perfect”) is a young woman of glaring extremes: too much hair, too much makeup, but not enough clothing to cover her body, of which there is also too much.
Casey, the object of Evie’s obsession, wouldn’t seem edgy even if Jim Morrison never existed; with his half-singing, half-talking style, he’s simply self-important and unlistenable.
Among his pseudo-poetic on-stage rants: “You say you wanna wake up, but can you sleep in your dreams?” and “Don’t forget your keys.”
Whatever he’s talking about speaks to Evie, whose self-mutilation has made her famous and given Casey some much-needed publicity. She keeps showing up at his performances with his name forming a giant scar across her flesh (though it’s backward because she did it while looking in the bathroom mirror) and becomes his unexpected muse.
Pearce sings in the movie, and he has a throaty, soulful voice. (Who knew? They didn’t let him sing in “Memento.” Maybe he could have sung the lyrics backward.) The songs themselves are sort of generic rock, but they’re far preferable to his cryptic speeches.
Out of nowhere one day, Casey asks Evie to marry him. They move into a small, run-down house together. They fight because he’s a moody, tortured artist. She loves him anyway. Insert the next cliche here.
“A Slipping Down Life” is intended as an inspiring tale of Evie’s development from insecure child to self-assured woman. It might be easier to connect and care about her, though, if it were possible to look at her without being distracted by the word “YESAC” on her face.
“I wish you would go,” Evie pleads with Casey about halfway through the movie. “Why don’t you just get out and stay out?”
Our thoughts exactly.