Friday, March 12, 2004

The Station Agent

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Viewed 10 March 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

I've heard that when The Station Agent was first being cast, writer/director Thomas McCarthy hadn't planned on Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) being a dwarf; that apparently came later. If so, I'm curious to know what set Fin apart in the early drafts, since this is a story about a man whose interactions with others are clearly defined by an immediately noticeable physical difference.

Still, Fin's defining characteristic early on is that he likes trains. A lot. He works in a model railway shop owned by Henry, apparently his only friend (though in the back, to avoid comments he's heard a thousand time before); his small apartment contains train memorabelia, and his social circle seems to mainly include other train nuts. His entire world seems to be centered around one building in Hoboken, NJ, which contains the store and his apartment, with occasional, unpleasant trips to the outside world where he endures the taunts of "normal" people who see him as an oddity rather than a man.

Henry owned the building, though, and when he dies suddenly, Fin is told that the store will close and the building will be sold. But, Henry has left him a piece of land in the town of Newfoundland, NJ, on which is situated an unused train station. He heads out (apparently traveling the 30 miles on foot), following the rails, and though there's no electricity or water when he arrives, it is isolated and there are trains and tracks, making it all Fin wants. Until people start showing up, whether they be the gregarious Joe (Bobby Cannavale) who sets up his father's hot dog truck outside the station; or the sad Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who nearly runs him over...twice; or Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a young girl who also has an interest in trains.

This is a remarkably good-natured movie; Fin's initial well-earned crankiness is balanced by Joe's likability, and the ultimate message is less a heavy-handed one of tolerance and more how it's good to have friends, even if making them is an unfamiliar process. It's frequently very funny, avoiding the short jokes and getting its laughs from the characters' personalities. The characters are all well-played, and the direction is solid.

I did have a couple questions during the movie, like how Fin pays the bills after the shop is sold, but the movie is short enough to not wear out its welcome, bloat with an excess of supporting characters, or overcomplicate a fairly simple story.

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