The buildup — best film at Locarno, a smash at Sundance — may overstate the charms of this play fully hip comic fable starring Brad Pitt (Thelma and Louise) as a musician with a Ricky Nelson fixation. But there's no denying the kick of Pitt's memorably offbeat performance and writer-director Tom DiCillo's stylish debut.
DiCillo has worked as a cinematographer, most notably on Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, and the Jarmusch influence can be seen in the film's spare, desolate setting, meant to reflect the fringes of an unnamed American city (the film was shot in New York). Johnny, in a pompadour and suede shoes, roams this decaying metropolis looking for a dream job (playing music instead of painting apartments) and a dream girl. He thinks he's found her in Darlette (Alison Moir), whose mother (the spirited Tina Louise) is a record producer. But Darlette and Mom soon tire of Johnny's retro routine.
In this cynical world, the immature Johnny is an innocent, despite flaws ranging from vanity to nervous flatulence. Pitt is a sensation, bringing deadpan humor and touching gravity to a role that could have been a cartoon. If Johnny grows up at all, it's due to the hard lessons he learns from an insolent pop idol, Freak Storm (a hilariously wicked Nick Cave), and a no-bull teacher, Yvonne (the fine Catherine Keener), who loves him. Though the film is no more than a series of striking vignettes, DeCillo strings them together with a vibrant inventiveness that makes you eager to see what he's up to next.