Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi A Love Bizarre

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 24, 1998:  When you see as many movies as I do, you learn to hunt for the good bits. You learn to love movies not as a whole, but for their details. Good special effects. Nice costumes. The dog was funny. It's a defense mechanism, really. Sitting through a bad film, you've got to find something to keep your attention glued to the screen. Rarely does a film succeed in its entirety. Almost never do you see a film that handles every element from script on down to lighting with perfection. The fact is movies have grown so formulaic that we've begun to appreciate them for their ability to provide the smallest variations on a theme. Die Hard on a bus? Brilliant! ... Which is why it's so damn refreshing to see a film that stands out from the crowd. A film that is different, even groundbreaking, is like a breath of fresh air. After a summer of taking such meager sips of oxygen at the local cineplexes, I'm excited to fill my lungs with deep, gulping draughts of a film like Buffalo '66.

Buffalo '66 is the lovechild of actor Vincent Gallo, whose most memorable work until now has been as "that creepy guy" in the Calvin Klein ads. Since then, he's worked as "that creepy guy" in indie films like The Funeral and Palookaville. With Buffalo '66, Gallo makes his writing/directing debut--and it is a debut that vibrates with talent and originality. More than just independent, this film borders on the underground, the experimental--yet still manages to be an enormously funny and entertaining piece of work.

Gallo stars as Billy Brown, a hard-luck space case who gets released from prison in Buffalo, N.Y., after five years hard time. Having perpetrated a five-year lie involving his work for the CIA and a "new wife," Billy now faces the unsavory prospect of visiting his parents with nothing to prove his preposterous cover-up. After dashing into a local dance studio (to borrow the head), Billy impulsively grabs a young girl named Layla (Christina Ricci) and forces her to drive him to his parents' house in the suburbs. Billy's pathetic attempt at kidnapping is carried out with equal measures of violent threats, sincere apologies and offers of friendship. Awkward, motor-mouthed and desperate, Billy is genuinely sorry for inconveniencing her, but he really needs a wife right now, and he isn't about to take no for an answer. For her part, Layla seems quite compliant, and soon the couple find themselves posing as man and wife for old mom and dad. It's a demented situation, made even more humorous by Gallo's bizarre inflections and by the blatant indifference of his hyper-dysfunctional football-obsessed parents (an unrecognizable Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara).

Although more grounded than Billy, Layla too is a lost soul in search of a reality far grander than the one she knows. While Billy spins yarns of professional and financial success, Layla indulges fantasies of picture-perfect romance. It's obvious that Billy and Layla possess the key to each other's happiness, but it's going to take some serious work to get this troubled twosome together. What begins as a grubby, kitchen sink drama becomes a twisted romantic fairy tale--one that's downright sweet in its profound awkwardness.

As a filmmaker, Gallo uses the chilly environs of Buffalo like an ice-colored backdrop to the loopy emotions on parade. For flashback sequences, he employs some stunning split-screen imagery--scenes from the past push out from the center of the screen like faded home movies. Not since Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book have I seen a filmmaker manipulate the movie screen (in size, shape and image) so deftly. First-time filmmakers are usually most adept at reinventing the wheel--for all their bluster and style, most do little more than rehash pointless camera tricks that impart nothing to the story and were cliché in the 1960s. Gallo, however, seems to be coming from a different world. No film school groupie he, Gallo originally started his career as an artist, and his painterly palate is on ample display here.

Ricci has certainly developed as an actress. After her recent Lolita-like turn in The Opposite of Sex and her small-town tramp look here (all glitter eyeshadow and exploding bustline), fans of Mermaids and The Addams Family will be hard pressed to recognize the wide-eyed teen star. Ricci's Layla has a palatable lost-girl innocence coupled with an amoral bluntness--the kind of girl who probably had plenty of sex in high school but has never been in love. Gallo, meanwhile, infuses Billy with a certain geeky, loser-boy pathos. Gallo's eternally unwashed hair remains his most obvious trademark, but his unpredictable talent and growing skills are beginning to mark him as the Andy Kaufman of method actors.

More demented comedy than black comedy, more underground than independent, Buffalo '66 is loaded with oddball appeal and artistic innovation. It's one of the best films of the year, and you can stamp that in gold right now.

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