"A Slipping-Down Life" has been an unusually long time coming to movie theaters. Based on a 1970 Anne Tyler novel, it was adapted and filmed by actress Toni Kalem ("Sopranos" fans know her as Angie Bonpensiero, Big Pussy's widow) and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. Then the film's producer recut the ending, Kalem put her foot down, and "A Slipping-Down Life" gathered dust for years until Lions Gate picked it up for distribution after the producer went bankrupt.
If the movie is coming out of a time warp, so is the story it tells, a gentle Southern Gothic about obsession, ambition, true love, and finding one's way in the world. There are elements of writer Flannery O'Connor's back-roads surrealism in Evie Decker (Lili Taylor), a virginal Georgia recluse who falls hard for a local rock star named Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce, hot off his "L.A. Confidential" breakthrough). Lean and sexy (and playing a guitar despite the stage name), Drumstrings stops his honky-tonk dirges in mid-song to intone doom-laden incantations a la Jim Morrison, circa 1967. The dusty small-town setting and affectless pace call to mind independent films of more recent years. It's all very When Worlds Collide.
But "A Slipping-Down Life" keeps your interest for the first half because you have no idea what Taylor's Evie will do next. Drawn to Casey's voice on a local late-night radio station, she drags her best friend, Violet (Sara Rue), to one of the singer's shows and goes dreamy with a fan's ardor, certain he's speaking directly to her. There are other women circling Drumstrings, so Evie takes drastic action and carves his name on her forehead with broken glass. In a nicely dark touch, she writes it backward, so it only reads when she looks in the mirror.
This makes her something of a celebrity, which means it makes Drumstrings one, too. His drummer-manager (John Hawkes, currently of HBO's "Deadwood") insists that Evie attend all their concerts; she gets a stage-front table where the press and the audience can see the kind of lovestruck stalker Casey attracts. The singer, for his part, is properly creeped out, and yet he finds that he can't pull it together when she's not there. And so something like a romance is born.
Taylor has played this whispery, demented household saint a few too many times before, yet she alone keeps you watching "A Slipping-Down Life," especially in the early scenes in which Evie finds a sustaining strength in her obsession. Pearce has a rock-god sensuality that doesn't last past dawn; that should make the character more interesting, but it just makes him more diffuse. (It doesn't help that his onstage rants are pretty silly.)
When Evie and Drumstrings actually get together, the film swerves into a surprisingly old-fashioned tale about the travails of young newlyweds, albeit one with a fashionable indie-film veneer (there's a lot of guitar strumming on the soundtrack, and catchy/
mopey songs by the likes of Ron Sexsmith and Joe Henry). A dinner with the couple's parents is predictably awful, but it gives the movie a needed kick in the pants; the same goes for the occasional appearance of the town roundheel, Faye-Jean, played with hell's-bells high spirits by Shawnee Smith. By the final scenes, though, the delicate momentum Kalem has established in the opening scenes has evaporated in the Georgia heat; you watch in dismay as "A Slipping-Down Life" turns more and more ordinary. The director deserves admiration for sticking to her guns, but here's a heretical notion: Maybe the producer's cut would have been a better movie. This version may be too late, but it's also too little, and that's what hurts.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Slipping-Down Life
Written and directed by: Toni Kalem, based on a novel by Anne Tyler
Starring: Lili Taylor, Guy Pearce
At: Harvard Square
Running time: 111 minutes
Rated: R (language, including sexual references)