Making movies about movies is a tricky endeavor. More often than not, they reveal that the filmmaker has no life outside of the movies, so all they can do is make movies about movies; this results in a limited worldview. However, you get some like this, where the making of a movie is a metaphor for something else. In this case, it’s a metaphor for what was going on in writer/director Tom DiCillo’s life. He had made a movie about an aspiring rock ‘n’ roll star called Johnny Suede in 1991, but it didn’t do very well financially (it literally played in one theater). Despite this, it was enough to attract attention for his “next movie”, Box of Moonlight, and DiCillo thought he’d be shooting in no time. Of course, that didn’t happen, and a period of frustration followed.
Living in Oblivion is what came out of that frustration. In a nutshell, this movie is about a day in the life of making a low-budget movie and everything that can go wrong during the process. If you’re intimidated by the fact that you have a limited knowledge of the filmmaking process, then think of this as being about a dysfunctional family. A lot of the movie does shows things going wrong on set, but unrequited love, jealousy, a crumbling relationship and an insane mother fill the large majority of the story.
Actually, let’s stop there because we don’t even know if what we’re watching is actually happening. The reason for that is because the movie is made up of three dream sequences. I’ve always felt that the best dreams sequences are the ones where you don’t know it’s a dream sequence, and that’s how this movie operates. Even when you think you have caught onto the dream sequence pattern, you still want to believe that what you’re watching is true.
Now, the third isn’t explicitly a dream sequence, but it is about the filming of one. However, everything goes right for everyone at the end of that sequence. That means it has to be a dream, right? The filming of the dream sequence has to be real though. A dwarf named Tito (Peter Dinklage in his film debut for all of you Game of Thrones fans) acts in the filmed dream sequence and he rightly asks, when was the last time you had a dream that had dwarves in it? He doesn’t even have dreams that have dwarves in them.
Despite its dreamlike state, I don’t want to paint Living in Oblivion as a Lynchian art house film; it’s an absurdist comedy. DiCillo might have had the perspective to find comedy in the tragedy, but it is his cast that makes that come alive; it helps that most of them come from the independent world, so they are able to bring a texture that movie stars would not be able to bring. Even the fake movie star Chad Palomino (James Le Gros) isn’t played by a movie star (although Brad Pitt almost played him). The same year that he was acting in a small but memorable role as a weirdo “psychopath” seeking revenge in Billy Madison, Steve Buscemi plays a weirdo filmmaker named Nick, who at one point fantasizes an award speech where he tells off all the people who rejected him. Buscemi, Catherine Keener as lead actress Nicole and Dermot Mulroney as sulky cinematographer Wolf are the stand outs, but there truly isn’t a bad part in this movie. DiCillo knows the crew of a movie intimately, and has layered them with their own individual nuanced story.
The only problem I really have with the film is that there really isn’t much character development and the characters’ range of emotions tend to just be anger and frustration. Yes, you could argue that this is because it takes place all in one day, but there are many movies (American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused and After Hours) in which the characters change. In addition, the use of the dream sequence technique does get to be a bit gimmicky; it does make you start to not care about what’s going on because you know it’s not “real.” Other than that, it’s honestly the best movie I’ve reviewed on this site so far.
Living in Oblivion is a wonderful mix of comedy and tragedy. DiCillo might have been in dire straits when he thought up the story, but he had enough perspective to laugh at his situation. Fortunately, he gets us to laugh at it too. The reason that the movie is made up of dream sequences is because that would be the only place where the filmmaking process would actually make sense. It’s easy to understand why Nick loses it, even if that also turns out to be a dream sequence. It’s too bad that Nick and Chad think they’re making a movie that goes against the grain of what they see as “Hostess Twinkie” Hollywood films, but as you can tell by this scene they shoot (starting at 0:36), they ARE making a “Hostess Twinkie” movie.