2½ stars (out of four)
If there is anything more depressing than Los Angeles in general, it's Los Angeles from the perspective of a self-centered, oddly charming would-be actress who plumbs her own shallow depths in the vain hope of finding something worth sharing with the universe.
Welcome to the world of "Ellie Parker," a faux-documentary and big, fat raspberry dedicated to L.A.'s underclass. No, not the folks who hang around The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf trolling for hand outs, but the other people Angelenos would rather pretend don't exist: the struggling actors. Not so much up-and-coming as down-and-stationary, they drag themselves from audition to audition, each encounter more soul-destroying than the last. (The reasons for rejection are myriad: not tall enough, not short enough, not thin enough, not young enough, not willing enough to sleep with the director .)
The story behind "Ellie Parker" is exhausting to even think about. Naomi Watts, who stars in the film, and Scott Coffey, who wrote and directed it, teamed up five years ago to make a short film about Ellie, a not-particularly-talented actor hellbent on achieving the Hollywood dream. After showing the result at Sundance in 2001, Watts and Coffey kept filming, adding bits and pieces over the years, following Ellie as she reaches the nadir of her quest--ironically, just as Watts herself was catapulting into the stratosphere of stardom.
The result is a 94-minute meditation on the ridiculous lengths to which people will go to achieve fame--or even something that vaguely resembles it.
Shot on digital video, the film feels not so much grainy and raw (the intended results, one assumes) as unprofessional--a flaw that works in its favor intermittently, but mostly just makes the whole thing feel unfinished and slightly dingy. The acting isn't bad at all and occasionally is quite good. Watts, who is making another, slightly more prominent appearance at the box office this month in Peter Jackson's much-anticipated "King Kong," is a powerhouse, springboarding all over the emotional map. She's funny, sad, ridiculous--creating a character that's impossible not to root for, even as she annoys the heck out of us.
The movie serves up plenty of in jokes about Hollywood and its denizens, but most of them are at the expense of the already slightly pathetic characters. Everyone in Ellie's life is in the business. Sort of. Sam, the art gallery receptionist? Oh, she's an actor. The guy selling tchotchkes at a home design store? He's a cinematographer, of course. But he really wants to direct. (Don't even ask what the directors really want to do: The movie's funniest scene centers around one of the most awkward audition scenes ever committed to celluloid .)
Coffey, who also appears in the film as Ellie's love interest, wears a perpetual deer-in-the-headlights expression that might explain his defection to the other side of the camera. Sam, played by Rebecca Rigg, is a charming straight shooter, whose resolute lack of tact helps deflate some of the industry's more absurd pretension. "Do you think Meryl Streep had to do this [stuff]? " she demands, as she and Ellie conclude their acting class with painfully earnest animal impressions--a ruse, it seems, to keep the students busy while their "instructor" takes a cocaine break in the bathroom. And Chevy Chase, who makes a surprisingly understated appearance as Ellie's ineffectual agent, is very funny, in a sad kind of way.
Which, come to think of it, is actually a good way to think of the film in general. The premise--someone trying to inject meaning into a necessarily vacuous existence--is depressing, but there are moments of vaguely uncomfortable hilarity. The whole endeavor, however, winds up feeling flat and a bit dull.
At the very least, we can walk away happy in the knowledge that if Ellie were as talented as the actor portraying her, her whole story might have been different. Than again, given the vagaries of Hollywood, it might have been exactly the same.
Written and directed by Scott Coffey; photographed by Coffey and Blair Mastbaum; edited by Matt Chesse and Catherine Hollander; music by Neil Jackson; produced by Coffey, Naomi Watts, Chesse and Mastbaum. A Strand Releasing release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:34. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for language and some sexuality).
Ellie Parker - Naomi Watts
Sam - Rebecca Rigg
Chris - Scott Coffey
Justin - Mark Pellegrino
Dennis - Chevy Chase
Smash - Blair Mastbaum
Casting chick - Jennifer Syme
Casting director - Johanna Ray
Acting teacher - David Baer
Keanu Reeves - himself
Acting student - Robbi Chong
Rob Mailhouse - himselfCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times