The mockumentary is the most fragile of jests, an esoteric pop-movie charade that is self-destructing at the very moment it has come of age. Christopher Guest virtually invented the form with "This Is Spinal Tap," but even as he refined this collegiate style of parody with "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best of Show," the joke seemed to be overstaying its welcome. In order for viewers to "get it," they must share with the filmmaker a smug awareness of the milieu being satirized, and all that mutual self-congratulation can become very tiresome.
That said, "Lisa Picard Is Famous" is high-grade lampoon, at once more consistently on-the-money and less patronizing than anything off the Christopher Guest conveyor belt. As with many phony documentaries, it's about show business: There is a natural affinity between style and subject, which tend to reflect back on themselves to a narcissistic degree.
The extravagant self-absorption of the actor is at the heart of director Griffin Dunne's "Lisa Picard Is Famous," which chronicles the career of a New York actress on the brink of some kind of notoriety. Laura Kirk (who wrote the film with her co-star, Nat DeWolf) gives a courageously dissonant performance as Picard, a 27-year-old unknown who has agreed to let a filmmaker (Dunne) document her struggle. Lisa is at a hopeful moment, relatively speaking: With only some children's theater, a real-life reenactment, and a controversial Wheat Chex commercial to her credit, Lisa is poised to break out with a cameo as actress Melissa Gilbert's sister in a made-for-TV movie. Lisa's dubious credits put her laps ahead of her best friend, Tate (a winning DeWolf), a cute but unremarkable young gay man who is putting all his chips on a confessional one-man show he has written about homophobia in show business.
After a flat beginning (Lisa's Wheat Chex commercial strains credibility, a visit to Tate's apartment is banal), the film gathers steam as Lisa auditions for an Advil commercial and Tate premieres his monodrama, a hilariously earnest riff on David Drake's "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" that features the obligatory underpants moment. In between, Dunne intersperses some unsettling interviews with real-life players in the fame game, from Carrie Fisher to a man who carried Edgar Bergen's dummies. Sandra Bullock appears as herself in a post office run-in with a sycophantic Lisa and Tate that makes you want to hide under your chair.
"Lisa Picard Is Famous" epitomizes the tightrope balance of mockumentary humor: It tends to fall off in the "big" scenes, when Kirk and DeWolf over-indicate to the camera for effect, as actors are fond of saying.
The best moments exude the tension of reality tweaked the barest notch, as in a devastating three-way encounter in which Charlie Sheen, playing himself, stealthily one-ups Tate in a play for Spike Lee's favor. That two of Sheen's more memorable roles in recent years ("Being John Malkovich" the other) send up his mercurial visibility is a testament to the shaky nature of fame that "Lisa Picard Is Famous" measures with caustic precision.
'Lisa Picard Is Famous'
Laura Kirk: Lisa Picard
Nat DeWolf: Tate Kelley
Sandra Bullock: Herself
Charlie Sheen: Himself
Spike Lee: Himself
First Look Pictures and GreeneStreet Films present, a Stella Maris Films and Dolly Hall production, in association with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment/GreeneStreet Films/ Longfellow Pictures, released by First Look. Director Griffin Dunne. Producers Mira Sorvino, Dolly Hall. Executive producers Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, Fisher Stevens, Bradley Yonover, Andrew S. Karsch. Screenplay by Nat DeWolf and Laura Kirk. Cinematographer William Rexer II. Editor Nancy Baker. Costume designer Denise Walch. Music Evan Lurie. Production designer Mark Ricker. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
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