The Station Agent (2003, Tom McCarthy)

The Station Agent is not a character study. It does try, at almost exactly the one hour mark (it runs a breezy, but deliberate eighty-nine minutes), to become a character study, but it is not a character study. It is actually a perfect example of how to not make a character study.

Writer-director McCarthy spends the first hour avoiding showing the audience enough about protagonist Peter Dinklage to even hazard an understanding, then gives Dinklage a series of challenges to overcome in the third act. The challenges are mostly hackneyed; if they aren’t hackneyed, McCarthy doesn’t want to stick with them because there’s no character development for Dinklage (onscreen). So instead of achieving something sublime, Station Agent rushes a finish. It’s a long rush–the last third–and an obvious, predictable one.

It’s all thanks to the actors it works out. Dinklage is awesome. If McCarthy weren’t terrified of making the film about him, Dinklage would be even better. There’s the potential for a great role, but McCarthy doesn’t write for it. He wants to keep things genial. Station Agent is a comedy with some melodrama. Most of the comedy comes from Dinklage’s sidekick, Bobby Cannavale.

Dinklage inherits a train station depot. He’s a train enthusiast. He moves across New Jersey to live in the depot. Cannavale runs his recovering father’s food truck–inexplicably stationed in the same remote lot as the depot. It’s got nice scenery, I suppose. Station Agent is a visually precious film. Oliver Bokelberg’s photography–except at night, really–John Paino’s production design, the locations. McCarthy succeeds with a visual result better than his composition.

Anyway, Cannavale wants to be friends because there’s “no one cool in town.” Dinklage doesn’t want to be friends because he doesn’t want to make friends; he lives a solitary life, avoiding social interactions because he has dwarfism. McCarthy’s inability to convey that aspect of Dinklage’s character in the script (and plot) is Station Agent’s big problem. He can’t figure out a way to talk about it.

Dinklage even tells Cannavale–who is so charming and lovable and downright good, they have to become friends–Dinklage even tells him he doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Station Agent doesn’t want to think about it, even though it informs all of Dinklage’s actions.

Again, movie can get away with it because it’s got a good sentiment, great performances, and solid dialogue. It’s fun to watch.

Dinklage and Cannavale find a third Musketeer in Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson’s good, but she gets the shaft as far as a character. She’s separated from husband, painting (weird faces), her toddler son has died. If it weren’t for Clarkson’s nervous distraction, the character would be as caricature on screen as in script. But Clarkson does a lot with the part.

Until McCarthy kicks her out of the movie. Then he kicks Cannavale out of the movie. In their place, he brings in Michelle Williams as a possible love interest for Dinklage. Williams’s good, she and Dinklage have chemistry, but McCarthy chickens out of it.

The Station Agent is a charming, beautifully acted, solidly constructed film. But seeing as how everyone showed up to do some work–even Stephen Trask’s slightly overbearing, omnipresent score excels–it would have been nice if McCarthy had something for them to do after the movie hits the one hour mark.

I mean, it’s not even clear Dinklage gets water and power at the train depot. The one plot thread McCarthy follows up on is to make a plotting thing work. The subplots are all fake; Cannavale’s father is a contrivance, ditto Williams’s home situation, ditto Clarkson’s mourning. Dinklage gets a charming but empty subplot with a fellow train enthusiast, middle schooler Raven Goodwin. Because McCarthy’s scared to do an actual subplot. And, no surprise, Goodwin even gets a fake subplot in an otherwise disposable, yet charming scene.

The Station Agent is good. But it’s frustratingly close to being great; it just needed some development for its characters. Onscreen character development for its cast. Dinklage, Cannavale, and Clarkson are all good. And they all showed up ready to be exceptional. And McCarthy chickens out every single time they can be.

But always in a charming way.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, John Paino; produced by Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski, and Kathryn Tucker; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Peter Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Michelle Williams (Emily), Raven Goodwin (Cleo), and Paul Benjamin (Henry Styles).


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