Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 5, 2003
The Station Agent\r\nStarring Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy. Rated R.

A dwarf gets a new start on life in the likable, inconsequential The Station Agent.


The best-ever use of a dwarf in a movie was in Tom DiCillo’s 1995 satire Living in Oblivion. In that film, an indie movie director played by Steve Buscemi hires a dwarf actor to play a wordless part in a dream sequence. Fed up with the director’s pretensions, the diminutive thespian rebels against his casting and walks off the set shouting, “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like these! ‘Oh, make it weird. Put a dwarf in it. Everyone will go, Whoa! This must be a fuckin’ dream!’ Well, I’m sick of it!”

The dwarf actor in that film was played by Peter Dinklage, who (besides appearing in this week’s Elf as a prima donna children’s book author) now gets a starring role in his own movie, The Station Agent. It’s no slur on the current film to say that no single bit of business rises to the level of that sweet moment from DiCillo’s movie. This winner of several prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival exudes quite a bit of low-key indie charm, even if it doesn’t add up to that much.

Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, a sad and lonely 4´5´´ man who’s long used to being made fun of — he takes the world’s derision with a heavy sigh and moves on. His one source of enthusiasm in life is trains, and at the film’s beginning he works in a store that sells model trains. When his elderly boss (Paul Benjamin) dies, he leaves Fin enough money to retire on, plus the deed to an abandoned railroad depot in rural New Jersey. The new place affords Fin the chance to watch freight trains go by on the tracks and meet two of his neighbors: Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a chatty guy who sells hot dogs out of his truck beside the depot, and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an artist living at the country home she bought with her husband, whom she hasn’t had any contact with since the death of their son.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy is a first-time filmmaker with a background in acting. Here he’s created three good characters with a complex and credible relationship among them — Joe’s incessant conversation makes no impression on Olivia and seems to have scarcely more effect on the laconic Fin, but she opens up somewhat when the three of them are together. The three actors all do commendable work, and Cannavale is particularly good.

The trouble comes in the movie’s last third, when McCarthy apparently realizes that he has no story. A temporary rupture in the group and a suicide attempt come off as forced, and the film’s overly abrupt, open-ended conclusion just seems self-conscious. Fin remains closed off to us despite a clumsy attempt at catharsis during a scene in which he gets drunk in a bar. The Station Agent needed a co-writer to take the film in the right direction. Its best moments come earlier, when the characters simply hang out and watch the trains — and the rest of the world — go by.

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