Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
I have somewhat of an understanding of the behind-the-scenes world of independent filmmaking. I document behind-the-scenes video footage of short films being made, I acted in a small role in an Arkansas indie production (Juli Jackson’s “45 RPM”), and I make my own short films as well. There’s still a lot for me to learn if I’m going to be an accomplished filmmaker (though, being an accomplished film critic would be nice too). Maybe that’s why when a film about filmmaking catches my attention, my curiosity and fascination are provoked. There are parts that feel familiar to me, others that feel new to me, and the rest of the material mostly captivates me. Two of the best films I’ve seen show that are Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” and Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night.” Then there’s Tom DiCillo’s “Living in Oblivion,” one such film about filmmaking that actually feels the most familiar to me. In my book (or blog), that’s an accomplishment.
What’s even better (and what would bring in those who aren’t that familiar with the craft) is that it’s also a comedy. It’s wonderfully written—the dialogue rings true in a funny way and the situations ring similarly true in a Murphy’s Law sort of way. Anything that can go wrong on a movie set does go wrong one way or another and it’s funny seeing these characters, a film crew, react to them. It’s lively, clever, and flat-out funny.
The film divided in three parts, each one showing the shooting of a different scene for an independent film. Director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) is under stress trying to put together a film on a low budget and trying to get this scene complete. But the production is plagued by all sorts of problems—his leading actress, Nicole (Catherine Keener), is losing faith in herself and her acting career; his leading actor, hotshot Chad Palomino (James LeGros), has an ego too big for the production; his director of photography, Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), is suffering emotional problems; the technical crew is having problems with the new fog machine; actors can’t remember their lines; a pint-sized actor (Peter Dinklage) is angry at his role as a dwarf in a dream sequence; and more.
Good comedy is based on cause and effect; someone has to suffer and that’s where the laughs come from. “Living in Oblivion” has a great collection of funny moments in which this guy is trying his hardest to get these scenes off the ground and everything seems to be working against him, leading to further complications he has to keep getting out of. It’s a relatable conflict but also very funny.
They say “art imitates life.” In the case of this film (in addition to the film-within-the-film), it’s art imitating life imitating art imitating life by way of a perceptive, smart screenplay and even better (for me, anyway), instantly recognizable characters. I’ve come across at least some of these types of people on a film crew a few times before. Even if you don’t know about how the film world works, you can empathize with the issues being faced by people trying to get something done with their art. This goes to show that even with an independent feature film on a shoestring budget, there are as many problems to face as those you hear about in the makings of big-budget studio films.
But there’s a big problem I have with the film (and this is where spoilers come in) and it has to do with the segues into the next vignette (or “scene”). They’re dream sequences. A scene is shot, things go wrong, and a character wakes up from the experience, as it was all a dream. To me, this doesn’t work for three reasons. 1) It’s not clever when it happens repeatedly and it’s groan-inducing when you see that reveal, 2) these dreams are so damn precise and surprisingly accurate, considering the different people having these dreams, and 3) it’s not clear whether or not these scenes were even part of the film-within-the-film, so it left me confused. To me, it just came across a pretentious way to be “artful.”
Even with that distraction, I greatly enjoyed “Living in Oblivion.” It made me laugh with joy and it made me smile with recognition. I wanted more of this film actually! When it ended, I couldn’t believe it was really over. I wanted more of these characters and another scene for them to shoot together. That’s the power of this wonderful film about filmmaking.