What's The Big Deal?

Have you ever had the feeling that the movie you are watching is not the same one everyone else is seeing? There are plenty of movies that the public adores that most critics disdain, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about "The Station Agent."

AT THE Sundance Film Festival, Tom McCarthy's first feature won the Audience Award as the favorite feature film and the jury--the same folks who wisely selected "American Splendor" as best film--deemed McCarthy's screenplay best in show. And now it has opened commercially to almost entirely favorable reviews from critics high-, mid- and lowbrow. When I saw the movie at a small screening, I overheard an awed audience member say that he'd be a happy man if he could ever make a movie half as brilliant. To which my reaction was, and still is, "huh?"

Indeed, as I was watching this small, intimate drama unfold, "huh?" kept popping into my head with distracting regularity. "The Station Agent" is far from the worst film I've seen this year--there are a number of things I admire about it--but, to put it bluntly, I really didn't believe a word of it.

The central figure in "The Station Agent" is a train-loving loner named Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage). Finbar is a dwarf, which is clearly the source of his proud, sullen, self-protectiveness, as well as his preference for trains over the company of people. Finbar works in a model-train store, and when his boss (Paul Benjamin) dies, he's out of work. Luckily for him, the old man leaves him an abandoned depot in his will. (Why he didn't leave him his business is the first of many unanswered questions I had.) The depot is in rural New Jersey, and Fin sets off to claim his future home on foot, following the tracks. But why is he walking, when he certainly has enough money to take a train or bus? Why is he walking when it would take a man of his stature twice as many steps? The only reason I could figure was that it allowed McCarthy some poetic images of Fin on the railroad tracks, underlining his isolation.

Fin just wants to be left alone, free from the curious stares of strangers and cruel taunts about his height. His crumbled station house seems a perfect refuge, but solitude is not so easy to come by. He keeps getting dragged into other people's lives. Across the tracks is a young, loquacious and lonely hot-dog vendor named Joe (Bobby Cannavale) who looks after his sick father's truck, plastered with a huge Cuban flag on the side. Incorrigibly gregarious, he won't leave Fin alone. The second intruder is Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an unhappy and, yes, lonely painter who has left her husband and can't get over her grief at the death of her son two years earlier. She first meets Fin when, while driving, she spills hot coffee on her lap, swerves and runs the walking Fin off the road. This indie version of a "cute meet" so delights McCarthy he has her run him down a second time a little later.

It's not hard to discern where this tale is heading. These three isolated souls are destined to bond and break the chains of loneliness. To McCarthy's credit, their ultimate connection is not as mawkish as one might fear, and sentimentality is held in check. But these characters exist only to fit into McCarthy's pattern. Why is Joe's hot-dog stand in what appears to be the most forlorn crossroads in all of New Jersey? No wonder he's lonely--he seems to get two customers a day. His stand sits in the middle of the screen as conspicuously as a prop in a Beckett play. Who is this guy? A jolly, good-looking fellow, who you would think would have plenty of pals back in Manhattan (where he lives), his desperate need to share Fin's company seems less like the inevitable meeting of two souls than a result of bad business planning. If he had the sense to move his stand to a busier train stop, there would be no movie.

And why exactly are Joe and Olivia so drawn to Fin, who shuns their every effort to include him? An accomplished passive-aggressive, Fin greets most of their advances with stony silence. The one person he responds to with any warmth is a black grammar-school girl. She's played by Raven Goodwin, who gave a wonderfully complex performance in "Lovely and Amazing," but she can't do much with this generic sensitive-outsider role. The contrivances multiply with the appearance of a lovely teenage librarian (Michelle Williams) who, saddled with a loutish boyfriend who humiliates Fin, responds by offering her body to the sexy dwarf. It's not my notion of award-winning screenwriting when the actions of most of the characters seem willed into being.

What saves the movie, and gives it what emotional reality it has, is the acting. A lot of the good will this movie has generated is due to Dinklage, who single-handedly overturns decades of screen stereotypes, in which dwarves have been used as freaks, jokes, arty symbols or surrealistic garnish. Dinklage gives a multilayered, tip-of-the-iceberg performance, suggesting a vast pool of buried emotions simmering under his cool, dignified, but subtly self-pitying exterior. Clarkson continues to be one of the treasures of the American indie movement: her salty honesty does a lot to leaven the film's schematic pattern with humor. And though I had a hard time swallowing Cannavale's character, he's an appealing, wide-open presence; he plays this compulsive motormouth with flair.

"The Station Agent" is a vignette that feels stretched into a feature. McCarthy has talent, and his patience and restraint as a director could yield something interesting in the future. It's his screenplay that's the problem: it's a rigged game from the start. I remain baffled that this thin, artificial fable is held up as some triumph of "poetic" independent filmmaking. The suspicion lurks that it's the novelty of its dwarf protagonist that has occasioned all the hoopla. The audience, like Olivia and Joe, can feel good about itself for embracing this unusual outcast. But doesn't this smack of the condescension that Dinklage's tough, unsentimental performance tries to refute? If Fin was six feet tall, would anyone be willing to put up with him?