The great character actor Steve Buscemi -- a sad sack with wellsprings of smart, blue-collar peevishness -- occasionally deigns to make movies: ''Trees Lounge" (1996), ''Animal Factory" (2000), and now ''Lonesome Jim." (He also occasionally directs episodes of ''The Sopranos," including the wonderful 2001 episode in which Paulie Walnuts and Christophuh got lost in the woods, and the more recent wedding of Johnny Sack's daughter.)
Like Buscemi's other movies, ''Lonesome Jim" is a tale that finds extremely dry comedy in loserdom. Its sort-of hero is a 27-year-old man-boy named Jim (Casey Affleck) who has struck out as a New York writer and lands on his parents' Indiana doorstep, hoping to be fed and clothed while holding the entire state in contempt. Not a nice guy, but a recognizable guy -- one of those literate, self-absorbed kids who read ''The Catcher in the Rye" in ninth grade and never got over it.
Jim's cynicism is as boundless as his inertia, though, and his love of Salinger and Hemingway is a shield that prevents him from actually doing anything. ''Lonesome Jim," based on a novel by the Midwestern writer James C. Strouse, has a good, quiet chortle over the title character's uselessness, and it watches as he dyspeptically affects the lives of those around him and is, in turn, affected by them.
''I'm used to challenges," Jim halfheartedly brags at one point. ''You're used to avoiding them," comes the response.
Said responder is Anika, a nurse and single mother played with adorable small-town blowsiness by Liv Tyler. She's the closest thing to a love interest Jim's willing to entertain, so long as it doesn't involve romantic attachment, but Anika's used to that. She clearly knows how to get what she wants from immature men, having learned the hard way.
Jim's home life offers various ways to cope with the banal pain of jes' livin'. Mom (Mary Kay Place) is a chirpy, smothering optimist -- the sort of woman who'd look at a black hole and call it off-white. Dad (Seymour Cassel) is barely present. Jim's older brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), is an even bigger basket case who has moved back into his old bedroom after his divorce; what was once sibling rivalry has devolved into ritual blame games. ''I came home to have a nervous breakdown, but the bastard beat me to it," says Jim. Tim's response is novel: He drives into a tree.
This all sounds like the movie's treading turf similar to ''Garden State," but Buscemi's far less sentimental than that film's writer-director, Zach Braff, and while Jim does take over his brother's job coaching a kiddie basketball team, you'd be a fool to expect emotional growth. Buscemi, bless his bitter heart, knows that people don't change so much as look for excuses to stay the same.
The problem is that a little of this minimalist kitchen-sink farce goes a very long way, and after a while ''Lonesome Jim" starts to dry up. Affleck -- Ben's kid brother, with none of the posturing -- gets so far under the skin of this semi-charming jerk that the performance becomes both brave and aggravating, and you start to fault the other characters for not calling Jim on his nonsense. (Anika does, to an extent, like a doctor telling a cancer patient to quit smoking.)
The only curveball the movie keeps throwing comes in the form of Jim's Uncle Stacy (Mark Boone Jr.), a grizzled reprobate who prefers to be called Evil and who involves Jim in criminal activities that eventually bite the entire family on the hindquarters. Boone has great fun playing a lowbrow Type A in a family of Type Zs.
''There are so many fun and cheerful people in the world. Wouldn't you be better off with one of them?" Jim asks Anika at one point, and this is about the closest ''Lonesome Jim" comes to dramatic development. The movie's strength is that Buscemi isn't really interested in the answer. That's also its biggest flaw.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.