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Worth A Look58.33%
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1 review, 6 user ratings

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Second Best
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by Erik Childress

"The Next Harvey Pekar?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2004 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Last year at Sundance the buzz percolated around a film called American Splendor. It was based on the life of Harvey Pekar, a classic outside whose titular comic book series gave a voice to those on the fringes of society; the overlooked, the average joes, the losers. Elliot is one of those losers; albeit a self-proclaimed one, who is not that far removed from Pekar. Splendorís great pleasure was seeing Paul Giamatti, a recent inductee into the movieloverís Character Actor Hall of Fame, strut his talent in a leading role (one labeled as Oscar-worthy.) If Giamatti is a first-ballot candidate, then Joe Pantoliano is one of the founding fathers.

ďA loser is a genius of self-delusion,Ē is one of the many things that Elliot writes; all of which unpublished except across town on single sheets of paper that he pays a local boy to spread around. Heís got a gaggle of middle-class friends who exist on the same plane but who never reduce themselves to mere self-depreciation. Still they gather for dinner regularly and listen to Elliotís writings wondering when the day will come when heíll finally type about himself instead of the metaphorical loser who are occasionally based on his acquaintances.

Elliotís oldest friend, Richard, is now a hotshot Hollywood producer. Heís coming back to town for a visit and Elliot convinces him to forget about expensive hotels and stay as his guest. He would like nothing more then to impress Richard and goes around collecting money; an alimony check from his wife (thereís a nice switch) and borrowing cash from his dentist son, whom he wished would prefer vaginas but doesnít condemn him for his lifestyle choice.

If thereís a pattern forming, its not the usual one weíre accustomed to. Elliot has some surly traits and is by far a perfect man, but heís not an unlikable one. Chances are most audience members will either identify with his particulars or know someone vaguely categorical to him. Writer/director Eric Weber doesnít take us down easy plot trails and never wastes time by planting giant forks in them. When Elliot takes an interest in sexy crossing guard, Carole (Jennifer Tilly), our preformed notion is that a brewing romance will save the loser and breed confidence. Such is not the case, as Carole is married (to an unseen big guy named Bruno) and their relationship is sloppy, not-at-all romantic and reveals its true nature in a harsh, but overtly comical manner.

Pantoliano (known as ďJoey PantsĒ in most circles) has been a God on the cinematic rolodex dating back 20 years to Risky Business. In more recent years with films like Bound and Memento and on TVís Sopranos, Pantoliano has proved not only what an invaluable character actor he is but what a brilliant ACTOR he is, sans any adjective you can choose to lavish praise upon. Itís hard to think of two Joey Pants roles that are analogous of each other and his flawlessly chameleonic transition into just about any characterization without batting an eye that youíre watching Joe in a new part. The great ones have this talent without resorting to showy ticks or makeup. Iím talking like Gene Hackman and James Stewart good. Pantoliano may never rise to their stature in the publicís eye, but thatís OK because those of us who are paying attention are the ones in for the real treat.

The praise isnít just reserved for Joe though, since Jennifer Tilly has gone a long way going underappreciated as just another ditzy actress playing ditzy roles. Tilly makes the best of an underwritten role here as just an effortless comic dynamo. How far her character goes to not impede her fan-girl appreciation of anything Hollywood may not have you realizing just how hard youíre laughing at her giddy antics; partially at her and partly at how well Tilly pulls it off. Thereís something so wonderfully quirky about her pre-coital orders to Elliot that I may burst out laughing thinking about it the next time I get as lucky as he did.

Second Bestís title may be apropos in the wake of American Splendor and thatís OK. Thatís part of life. Itís sometimes impossible to believe that anyone on top of the world would ever feel envious about those trailing them in the stretch (and I donít buy Richardís admition her either.) But Shaudenfreud exists in every class whether envy materializes in who has the better car or the bigger mobile home. Are any of the silver medal winners actually losers? Is that built up in their mind or just a defense mechanism to block out the gloating of society? Iím sure Harvey Pekar would look at Elliot and welcome him to the club, one that isnít private and simply say to him, ďyouíre OK.Ē

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originally posted: 01/17/04 15:22:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/28/05 Edward Nalbandian Excellent, different, funny, Pantoliano's great 5 stars
1/28/04 Gillian Jeblum I really enjoyed this film! 5 stars
1/24/04 Jana Livingston saw it at Sundance, found it astonishingly real, unphony, no revolting indy clicheness 5 stars
1/23/04 Sara O thought provoking and non-formulaic 4 stars
1/23/04 Carl Schell An entertaining, well-acted movie that's going to be the next big thing. 5 stars
1/22/04 Jeanine Ward Great Movie, I recommend it to everyone. 5 stars
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  DVD: 27-Jul-2006



Directed by
  Eric Weber

Written by
  Eric Weber

  Joe Pantoliano
  Jennifer Tilly
  Boyd Gaines
  Bronson Pinchot
  Barbara Barrie
  Polly Draper

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