The Station Agent (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"Yes they're sharing a drink they call loneliness

But it's better than drinking alone."

-- Piano Man, Billy Joel --

The Station Agent was one of the most popular films at Sundance this year (2003), winning both the screenwriting award and the audience award. It may be the best reviewed film of the year, with 97% positive reviews, according to Rotten Tomatoes. It is rated 8.2 at IMDb, good enough to make the top 60 of all time if it had enough votes. Most people who have seen it have liked it, as you might well have guessed from its having received the audience award at Sundance.

So why haven't you ever heard of this film? A couple of reasons:

1. Miramax believed it was a small, personal kind of film without sufficiently broad appeal to compete toe-to-toe with the big Hollywood epics, so they gave it a cautious arthouse roll-out. Actually, "cautious" doesn't say the half of it. After four weeks, despite great reviews and good revenues per screen, it had reached only 58 screens.

2. For some reason, they marketed this as a comedy. While the author has a sense of humor, it is really just a real-life character-based drama with a few moments to make you smile, all of which come naturally out of the characters and situations.

What is it all about? Not much of anything. In a small town in rural New Jersey, three completely mismatched people come together because of their mutual loneliness. An upper-middle class female artist, a Cuban-American hot dog vendor, and a reclusive dwarf are brought together mainly through the efforts of the gregarious hot dog guy, who really wants to make friends. Many of the film's best moments are based on the fact that the three friends really don't have much to say to one another, but they hang out anyway, because "It's better than drinking alone." They push each other away, pull back together, and eventually come to a genuine warmth in their friendship.

The film has a lot of guts. Some examples:

  • Rather than try to make the dwarf a sympathetic character, the author wrote him as the world's most boring human being. He gets off on reading about trains, and is obsessed with them, even timing their passage to the exact minute. As if being boring weren't a big enough character flaw, he's also taciturn and dour, and more than a little bit cynical and distrustful. He's not a bad person, but he's not a loveable one, either.

  • There is very little dialogue, and very little action. A lot of the movie consists of three people sitting quietly, or walking along railroad tracks. That pacing required three terrific actors to make the whole thing work, and the director found them in Bobby Cannavale, Peter Dinklage, and Patricia Clarkson.

I wouldn't normally like this kind of movie. I didn't even go to see it at Sundance because I read the summary and it sounds like it sucks. Grieving woman, having lost a child, retires to the woods to paint. Dwarf retreats from a cruel world. Minimal dialogue. I pictured a film which was slow and boring, not to mention smugly sensitive. I was wrong. The concept may be precious on paper, but the execution is excellent. The film is not meant for the fanboy audience, of course, but it is handled well enough by the director and actors that it is not boring at all for thoughtful adults, and the sensitivity is really just a natural level of human compassion and sharing, and not a false kind of Hollywood sentimentality. And there's some humor to keep the pace fairly lively, so I ended up liking it even though it is not my kind of film.


Patricia Clarkson's breasts are seen from the side-rear.

The film's auteur, Thomas McCarthy, is an actor by trade, or at least he used to be. The Station Agent is his first credit as either a director or a writer, but I suppose some doors are open for him now.

Nice job. If you like low key, personal, character-based independent films, check it out. It hooked me in against my will, and it may do the same to you.


Additional notes on second viewing: it does have a lot more humor than I picked up the first time through. Not wacky stuff, but quiet, low-key, charming humor.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Roger Ebert 3.5/4

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.2/10, Yahoo voters a B+.
  • Box Office Mojo. The gross was only $5.7 million, maxing out at 198 theaters, but it stayed in theaters for 29 weeks with a nice little cult following!

DVD info from Amazon

Anamorphic widescreen, deleted scenes, commentary

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B-. It is a small, personal, character-based drama with some comic undertones. If you like that kind of film, it is excellent. (It has been mis-marketed as a comedy.)

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