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Friday, July 2, 1999

Neuroses never looked this good

The number of actors-turned-director has been increasing exponentially of late, but more often than not the results are little morethan lame ego trips, with star-directors all too quick to give themselves the grandstanding roles.

However, "Buffalo '66," for which Vincent Gallo played the roles of actor, director, writer, producer and composer, belongs to another tradition: demon-purging films that need to be made, like Gary Oldman's "Nil by Mouth," or Steve Buscemi's "Trees Lounge."

True, "Buffalo '66" is an ego-trip as well, but that's Gallo's schtick, as anyone who's seen his work in films like "Arizona Dream" or "Palookaville" can attest. The Gallo persona is a paradox, pitting cocky arrogance against wounded insecurity, total self-obsession against abject loserdom, sexual desirability against grungy anti-cool. (He's kind of like a downtown Woody Allen, actually.)

How many actors do you know who will make it a point to include both 1) an overt, self-congratulatory reference to the massive size of his member, and 2) a camera angle that unflatteringly emphasizes his butt-crack peeping over his jeans? Well, Gallo is that kind of guy, and I imagine a psychoanalyst would be burying his head in his hands and weeping with despair long before this film is over.

Set in Gallo's own hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., the film opens with Billy Brown (Gallo) being released from an upstate prison with little more than the clothes on his back. Waiting for the infrequent bus into town, he finds himself with an urgent need to pee, and nowhere to go. A request to use the prison's toilet is denied, and the entire next reel of the film is a distressingly funny sequence in which a grimacing Billy, eyeballs floating, races against time in an attempt to find a toilet.

In ill humor from this bladder-busting experience, Billy kidnaps walking-talking Kewpie doll Layla (Christina Ricci) from a dance class, and bullies her into pretending to be his loving wife for the evening. Billy has to visit his parents -- who don't know he's been in the pen -- and he is keen to give them the impression that their son is doing well in the world. "You are here to make me look cool," orders Billy, and Layla improbably goes along.

Judging from the strained family dinner that results (easily the tensest this side of "Eraserhead"), Billy probably wishes he was still in the slammer. Mom (Anjelica Huston) never takes her eyes off old Buffalo Bills football videos, and Dad (Ben Gazzara) barely acknowledges Billy's existence, while Layla, in a hilarious bit of bluffing, tries to convince them that Billy works for the CIA. Mom lets out a real howler, noting how the only time her beloved Bills won the Super Bowl (1966) she missed the game because she had to give birth to Billy. "I wish I never had him," she blurts out matter-of-factly to Layla, much to Billy's discomfort. Needless to say, it's only a matter of time before civility breaks down.

Moving from one bad idea to another, Billy gets a gun and decides to exact revenge on the guy he thinks is responsible for landing him in the slammer, a former place-kicker for the Bills who now runs a seedy strip bar. While he's killing time waiting for the bar to open, he drags Layla around town to a bowling alley, a diner and a motel room, where he resists her request to take a bath together. He's so obsessed with past grievances he doesn't see the luck he's having in the present.

Gallo's Billy is a veritable ticking time bomb of tension, while Ricci's Layla is a passive marshmallow, absorbing and dissipating Billy's rage. The dynamic between the two is fascinating, especially when she starts to come on to him and he retreats into truculence. The film is also full of great cameos, with Mickey Rourke as a menacing bookie, Kevin Corrigan as Billy's "slow" friend Goon and Rosanna Arquette as Billy's long-lost crush from third grade, who's now a nasty gum-chewing hooker.

Gallo the director keeps you on your toes, never quite letting you get comfortable with the film's tone or characters. Events suddenly pause to allow time for Christina Ricci to do a surreal little tap-dance in the bowling lanes, or the screen to suddenly fill with multiple miniframes, encapsulating the horrid childhood memories that replay inside Billy's head. Scenes are shot instinctively, like when an entire phone conversation has the camera centered on Goon's flabby, pale belly. Even the film's penultimate gunshot-to-the-head suicide scene, a virtuoso sequence shot rhythmically to Yes' "Heart of the Sunrise," is rendered not as tragedy, but a cheap joke.

With an aesthetic sense somewhere between the painfully sensitive romanticism of Chet Baker and the grungy antichic of Larry Clark, "Buffalo '66" is so awkwardly and obsessively personal that it's almost embarrassing to watch. But it's so bizarre, you won't be able to peel your eyes away. Moving to its own rhythms, and answerable to no logic but its own, this is one of the most striking and misfit U.S. indie flicks since fellow New Yorker Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" some 16 years ago.

Considering the fact that Gallo has based the film on his own parents and childhood, the film seems stranger still. Whether this is confessional realism or daring performance art (a la the late Andy Kaufman) is hard to say, but, ultimately, who cares? This is compelling, twitchy stuff.

It's not all idiosyncratic style either: The final message here is that no matter how much your parents screw you up, or how unfair your life is, eventually you have to deal with it and move on, and at least make a movie about it.

In these days of chronic therapy and refusal to grow up, where neuroses become an excuse for being a jerk, this is a welcome message indeed.

"Buffalo '66" opens tomorrow at Cine Quinto in Shibuya.

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