‘Stoned’: Life Of Brian, By Kurt Loder

Who killed Rolling Stone Brian Jones? Let's guess. Plus, Steve Buscemi's small-but-wonderful 'Lonesome Jim.'

This is a movie undone by its own intentions. It purports to give us the lowdown on the 1969 death of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. But in doing this it must also, necessarily, give us the rest of the Rolling Stones — a group of men whose faces, over the last four decades, have become a part of pop-culture DNA. None of the actors who portray them in this film look anything like them; and while Leo Gregory, in the lead, wears a succession of acceptably Brian Jones-like wigs, his face is more reminiscent of the late German bizarro actor Klaus Kinski than it is of Jones. This is exceptionally weird.

It is impossible to get past this fundamental visual dissonance — especially since there’s not a single note of actual Rolling Stones music in the picture. (Stones tracks are very expensive to license.) And the vaunted lowdown — that Jones was murdered, drowned in the swimming pool of his country estate — isn’t new. It’s a theory that’s been trotted out in a number of books over the years, and it remains what it always has been: plausible, perhaps, but very shaky.

The story generally adheres to the familiar Stones narrative. Middle-class blues fanatic Brian Jones comes to London in the early ’60s, starts jamming with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and forms a band he names the Rolling Stones. They score hits, blow up big, and before long they’re awash in money, drugs and women. Jones sinks deep into this morass of colorful depravity. (Check out his woozy visage on the cover of the band’s 1967 album, “Between the Buttons.”) Soon, he’s so out of it that he stops turning up for recording sessions; and when he does, he’s useless. (Take a look at the Stones-in-the-studio documentary scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s otherwise-unwatchable 1968 film, “Sympathy for the Devil.”) Brian bottoms out. He beats up one of his many girlfriends, international trophy chick Anita Pallenberg, and Keith Richards, appalled and smitten, spirits her away. Ultimately, the Stones decide that Brian has to go, and in early June of 1969 they pay him a visit at Cotchford Farm, his leafy spread in rural Sussex, and fire him. On the night of July 2, he’s found dead at the bottom of his pool. Three days later, the Stones convert an already-scheduled free concert in London’s Hyde Park into a tribute to their discarded comrade.

First-time director Stephen Woolley (better known as a producer of such movies as “Interview with the Vampire” and “The Crying Game”) does a good job approximating the cultural texture of the rock-star ’60s — the concert chaos, the screaming dolly birds, the tabs of blotter acid disappearing down modish young throats. He’s also bracingly straightforward with zonked sex scenes, adorning them with boot licks, whip cracks and much matter-of-fact frontal nudity both male and female. However, when his picture veers away from the known facts of the Stones’ story into more conjectural areas, focusing on Jones alone, it loses that period energy, and it grows pokey.

This less familiar material, which is set at Jones’ farm, bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1970 film, “Performance,” which was directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg and actually stars Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg (along with a number of American porn-movie performers). Jagger plays a decadent rock star (possibly modeled on Brian Jones) who draws an unsuspecting outsider, played by James Fox, into his orbit of sex, drugs and mind games and psychologically destroys him.

In “Stoned,” the outsider is Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine), a simple blue-collar construction boss whose crew is doing renovations on Jones’s property. Jones, bleary and fey, casually recruits Frank as a late-night drinking buddy, and Frank quickly develops a taste for the guitarist’s lifestyle of luxurious debauchery. When Jones just as casually cuts him off (without paying him), Frank becomes furious and goes to the house to confront him. Jones grandly invites him to stick around for one last hang — a mistake, it turns out: during a drunken late-night swim, Frank pushes Jones down underwater and holds him there until he stops moving. Frank then scurries out of the pool, leaving the lifeless body to be discovered and dealt with by two women who are also staying at the house.

Did this really happen? The lone insistence that it did comes from Tom Keylock, the Stones’ road manager at the time of Jones’ death, and a friend of Frank Thorogood. Keylock claims that on his deathbed in 1993, Thorogood told him that he had in fact killed Jones in the pool. There was no witness to this alleged utterance, so its assertion proves nothing (although it did enable Keylock to score a gig as a consultant on this movie). The truth remains unknowable, and at a 37-year remove, it no longer seems to matter all that much. For anyone less than obsessed with such Stones arcana, it’s hard to imagine how it could matter at all.

“Lonesome Jim”: House of Pain

Jim and Tim, both hovering around 30, are brothers in blood and in bellyaching. An unfocused despair is their defining characteristic.

“I’m just miserable everywhere I go,” Jim says. “I don’t know what I’m doing here on this earth.” Tim takes this in, thinks about it, and says, “I’m really unhappy.”

What they actually are is hopeless narcissists. They’re so wrapped up in themselves that all they can feel is their own piddling “pain,” and they drag their sorry butts through each day unconcerned with the people around them who have real problems, and real sorrows, but who nevertheless make the best of their lives and do what they can to find enjoyment in them.

“Lonesome Jim,” a wonderful little movie directed by Steve Buscemi, has the kind of hangdog charm that Buscemi has brought to his performances in films like “Ghost World” and “The Island”; and while he doesn’t act in this one, his sweet, muffled humor flickers through the story like fairy lights on a gray and unpromising day.

Casey Affleck plays Jim, a 27-year-old failed writer who’s returning from New York to his small-town Indiana home with his tail between his legs. You can feel his soul sinking as he steps off the bus under a wintry, unwelcoming sky and surveys the familiar uneventful streets, the flat, frozen fields, the acres of nothing to do. Jim’s mother (Mary Kay Place) is dizzily happy to see him — she’s one of life’s indomitable enthusiasts; but his dad (Seymour Cassell) clearly has him pegged as a loser-in-the-making. Jim’s older brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), has already achieved full-fledged loser status: not only has he failed to realize his dream of becoming a CIA agent, he couldn’t even qualify to join the local police force. Now he’s divorced and forced to live at home with his parents in order to support his two little girls on what he earns working at the local lumberyard.

Making the rounds of the town’s droopy little beer bars one night, Jim encounters Anika (Liv Tyler), a friendly young nurse. After downing a few shots, she takes Jim back to her hospital and has friendly sex with him in an unoccupied room. He doesn’t bother calling her the next day, but when they meet again a few days later, she’s willing to overlook that, and you can tell that there’s a relationship here waiting to happen. Jim can’t muster the energy to pursue it, though — what would be the point? It could only end badly. (Tim is uncharacteristically happy that his brother has scored with a girl. “That means she has no standards,” he chortles. “Bet she’d do it with me, too.”)

It would be a disservice to a movie that’s only 91 minutes long, and as surprisingly delightful as this one, to reveal its plot. There’s a car crash, a funny coma, some very bad girls’ basketball-playing, and a cherry-cobbler day at the local prison. And first-time screenwriter James C. Strouse has created characters who vibrate with giddy little tics and crotchets, among them Jim’s scumbag Uncle Stacey (Mark Boone Junior), who’s a whale-bellied pot dealer, and Anika’s cute little son, Ben (Jack Rovello), a wiseguy beyond his years.

Casey Affleck plays the boldly unlikable Jim as a man with a spiritual concussion, and he’s completely likable doing it. When Jim’s baffled mom asks him what she’s done to make her kids so unhappy, and he mutters, “Some people just shouldn’t be parents,” you want to smack him. And you want to smack him some more when he’s droning on to Anika about how he loves his family, sort of, but he just can’t stand being around them. But then she stops him with, “What good is that kind of love?” And the movie takes a new emotional turn. Sure, you can see what’s coming. But you can’t wait.

—Kurt Loder

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