Considering its grand critical reception (numerous Top 10 lists and awards), The Station Agent represents 2003′s biggest disappointment. The small-town setting always appeals to me (my New York blood makes it a learning experience much of the time), and I loved David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, a similar picture in scope and atmosphere. Alas, The Station Agent doesn’t come close to lyricism or reality at any time during its irritating 88 minutes. It opens with implausibility, picks up some absurdity along the way, and concludes with a nice dose of silliness. That the execution of all this junk avoids melodrama and includes some excellent photography doesn’t make a whit of difference in the end. It’s a dull and obvious film posing as a subtle character study.
Fin (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf who moves into a station house in rural New Jersey after his only friend and business partner passes away. Fin hopes for a life of solitude but instead finds himself run off the road (twice) by a pushy woman named Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who insists on barging her way into his life. A coffee vendor named Joe (Bobby Cannavale) sells Fin a cup soon after his arrival, and also tries to invoke a friendship with the standoffish hobbit. Fin initially resists, but eventually becomes attached to both people, as well as a young librarian Emily (Michelle Williams), who’s developed that adorable schoolgirl crush. Oh yes, and there’s the little black girl who asks him to speak to her class at school. Stunningly, he initially refuses and eventually shows up! Who woulda thunk it? But more on these types of contrivances (of which there are plenty, believe me) later…
The Station Agent focuses on loneliness and the quest for acceptance, and wastes no time in telling us so. Things open with Fin’s friend dying and never steer from the most predictable direction. Now, that can still make for a fine film if the story feels realistic, if the characters give us something to grab on to. It can still be charming, if not always sublime. Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas (a simple NYC coming-of-age story) never aspires to rise above simplicity, but its heart and Sollett’s quiet direction make it a poignant experience anyway. The Station Agent is its polar opposite, presenting us with a stream of ludicrous scenarios and expecting us to bite. Most of these situations could be accepted in the frame of a more acceptable narrative, but taken a a complete package, it’s impossible to swallow without suspending belief to an inordinate level.
The relationships are heavy-handed and clichéd. Why does Joe, a perfectly attractive young man with an outgoing personality, feel so inclined to befriend a coldhearted midget who he’s met just two minutes before? Olivia showing up at Fin’s doorstep with an apologetic bottle of champagne (for running him off the road) is understandable; her insistence on coming inside and spending the evening is not. Their constant pushing and prodding is irritating. Nothing beyond the shallowest reason (they’re lonely; boo-hoo) is given for their unrelenting insistence that Fin be their buddy. Most of us have been lonely at some time or another, but that doesn’t mean we beg the first available person to give a damn, completely ignoring their anti-social persona or other issues.
Equally frustrating is the social depiction of Fin’s condition. There are plenty of assholes out there, no doubt, but it’s a bit of a stretch to envision everyone that crosses his path to make comments or poke fun. In general, there’ll be plenty of folks who’re mature enough to accept seeing a dwarf without starting in shock. There’ll be plenty who think something but keep it to themselves. Then there’ll be the few who can’t control themselves or are just plain dickheads, and unleash a verbal tirade. In The Station Agent, however, almost everyone who appears in a shot with Fin is seen staring rudely, or cruelly insulting him…except Joe and Olivia, who go the opposite extreme, proudly walking alongside him. Example: about 25 minutes in, Joe gets a visit from two cool-looking friends (another reason why his desperation to forge a relationship with Fin makes no sense). Instantly, I saw the entire scene play out in my head…friends tease Fin when he emerges from his home, Joe comes to his defense, etc, etc. And sure enough, that’s precisely what happened. One could argue that Joe wants more socially-accepting buddies than these pricks, but he’s clearly capable of finding them without resorting to pleading with a midget. Olivia and Fin’s relationship is packed with similar moments. Her ex-husband shows up at her doorstep just as Fin is leaving her house (what a lovely moment! No manipulation there or anything…), resulting in the usual self-doubt and questions. Yawn. Anything here that hasn’t been done a trillion times before?
The capper; while Fin’s at a bar drinking away his misery, Emily shows up, having met Fin just twice before. She sits next to him, strikes up a conversation, and then announces out of the blue that she’s pregnant. Anything seem a bit off here? Admittely, she’s in High School (and who among us didn’t do some silly shit back then?), but it’s a tad much to expect her to tell this incredibly personal fact (oh yes, nobody else knows yet) to someone she hardly knows. Immaturity be damned, that doesn’t happen in any world I know, and The Station Agent sure didn’t convince me that I’ve just been repressed. Of course, this (along with the usual encounter with her boyfriend whose mistreating her blah blah blah) all leads to them making out in a tender-as-can-be moment. Blech.
It may seem like I’m being a bit harsh (okay, very harsh), but I despise falseness in cinema, and The Station Agent is rife with contrivances and manipulation. I haven’t even touched on the presence of the token black girl, mainly because The Station Agent has enough problems without opening that can of worms (incidentally, I don’t think this is a racist film by ANY means, but the singular black child IS yet another example of McCarthy’s overbearing directorial style). I can’t say with complete conviction that the numerous implausibilities here are completely impossible, nor can I say that plenty of them wouldn’t have worked under a different context. Here, though, they cause a well-intentioned picture to fall flat on its face.