Living in Oblivion (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Over the past few years, there have been a number of "behind the scenes" movies about the film making world -- enough, in fact, that this category almost deserves to be considered as a genre in its own right. Most of these films, like Mistress, are forgettable. A select few, such as My Life's in Turnaround, have risen to the top, largely because of their ability to mix humor with pseudo-realistic events. The arrival of Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion proves that the well has not yet run dry. This movie is keen, clever, and -- most important of all -- a nonstop exercise in hilarity.

Living in Oblivion details one day in the life of director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi), who is trying to put together an independent film on a shoestring budget. This particular morning, he's due to shoot scene six. Little does he know that Murphy's Law is in full force. Nightmares -- real, figurative, and cinematic -- will plague the production, and what eventually emerges will be nothing like what anyone envisioned.

Reve's leading lady, Nicole (played by a shining Catherine Keener, who was in DiCillo's previous movie, Johnny Suede), is fraught with angst about her career choice. Does she belong in front of the camera or behind the counter at some greasy dive? The male lead, a stuck-up star by the name of Chad Palomino (James LeGros), has no worries about his ability. With an ego too big for the tiny set, Chad spends most of his time complaining to Reve and flashing smiles at the assistant director (Danielle Von Zerneck) and script girl (Hilary Gilford). The cinematographer (Dermot Mulroney, Keener's real-life husband), an eye-patched character who looks like Rambo but has the emotional sensitivity of Alan Alda, rarely lets a take go by without arguing the choice of shot.

The mishaps of scene six provide ninety minutes of unbridled fun. There are missed shots, booms in frame, exploding smoke machines, actors with bad breath, a vomiting camera operator, a senile mother on the set, and an irate dwarf in a red room (an obvious poke at David Lynch and Twin Peaks). Life imitates art, art imitates life imitating art, and all this happens in switches from black-and-white to color.

Often, the best comedies are blatantly stupid. In this case, however, we are presented with an intelligent and occasionally insightful screenplay. Not only are several real-life incidents from DiCillo's private stock of failures and frustrations represented, but the director isn't afraid to let fly with satirical barbs at just about any target, named or unnamed. Amidst all the humor is an opportunity to learn a little about the difficulties of creating an independent feature -- a process far less glamorous that some might believe it to be. Living in Oblivion is wonderfully photographed, with the color-to-black-and-white transitions handled smoothly (these aren't just an "art device" -- there's a legitimate reason for them), and several different film stocks in evidence. DiCillo has crafted a near-masterpiece that may make more than a few best-ten lists at year's end.

Living in Oblivion is packed with laughs and twists, and comes to an end far too soon. It's rare that a movie rolls the credits too early, but when this film fades to black, we're still longing for at least one more scene with Reve, his cast, and crew. While it's true that we don't get much sense of these people off the set, they're so wonderful in and around the camera that it doesn't matter. Best of all, Living in Oblivion doesn't demand that the viewer be a film buff -- just that he or she enjoys laughing.

Living in Oblivion (United States, 1994)

Director: Tom DiCillo
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros, Danielle Von Zerneck
Screenplay: Tom DiCillo
Cinematography: Frank Prinzi
Music: Jim Farmer
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1995
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1