Finbar (Peter Dinklage) is a railway fanatic who works in a model railway repair shop, intensely devoted to what is both his job and his passion. He is also a dwarf, and cannot walk down any street without curious or cruel comment. When his boss – who is also his friend and landlord – dies suddenly, he inherits a disused train depot in New Jersey through which he comes into contact with the locals, some of whom are as lonely and fragile as he pretends not to be.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sort of like a really good John Irving novel, quirky but not too contrived and genuinely moving. And, indeed, the first fifteen minutes or so (roughly the time outlined above) look very promising indeed. But the welcome spikiness of the opening completely disappears as Fin strikes up the proverbial ‘unlikely friendship’ with the coffee van driver, Joe (Bobby Cannavale), parked outside his station, and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an artist who is recovering (not too well) from the death of her young son and the attendant strains upon her marriage. These characters, who somehow manage to be both over-written and under-developed, hang-out good naturedly for an hour or so before the least affecting suicide attempt in cinema is interrupted and then the film sort of … stops.
Call it the Curse of Miramax. What started out as an energetic and edgy – if always unromantically profit-driven and business-savvy – distributor has become the producer of some of the most turgid and bland cinematic product seeping out of America today. The fact that The Station Agent has also been garlanded by praise and prizes at festivals (most particularly Sundance, now virtually a creative hothouse for Miramax) suggests that the prospects for the nurturing of independent talent with an even remotely unusual world view are gloomy indeed.
Mine is not a complaint against the bullying tactics employed by the Weinstein brothers, nor an echo of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s argument (in his excellent book Movie Wars) that Miramax is determinedly stamping on films and talent which don’t meet their own agenda (although I do think that’s true). No, I just think the vast majority of their output – from self-consciously prestige pictures like the loathsome Shakespeare in Love (1998) to the supposed ‘indie’ pictures that The Station Agent might be expected to embody – is boring.
Take, for example, the fact that the lead character here is a dwarf. This, no doubt, represents risky casting, and Dinklage is excellent and deserves any praise coming his way. However, the film does not explore in any real way the problems such a character might have in his everyday dealings with the world. Sure, there’s some dialogue that touches on Finbar’s size – but without any real work, the screenplay could easily have been rejigged so that the dwarf became an Overweight Anxious Man and, hey presto, there’s a vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman. The bet-hedging, focus-group mentality is, I would suggest, now the defining feature of Miramax product – the classy, literary equivalent of the dumb, fat action movie that goes down smoothly the world over.
None of which is to say that The Station Agent is in anyway bad. It’s well performed by the leads and professionally crafted. But it’s as dull as hell. Having said that, the (festival) audience I saw it with laughed a lot and warmly applauded at the end, so what do I know?