Written and directed by Scott Coffey. Produced by Scott Coffey, Naomi Watts. Photographed by Scott Coffey, Blair Mastbaum. Edited by Matt Chesse, Catherine Hollander. Music by Neil Jackson, BC Smith. Starring Naomi Watts, Rebecca Rigg, Scott Coffey, Mark Pellegrino, Chevy Chase.
Perhaps we can agree on something. Is it a sensible thought that, for some people, Hollywood is not a nice place? Instead of being the rich-and-famous playground that exists in myth, perhaps it is sometimes a work-a-day, frustrating, poverty-enforcing nightmare? That to be a struggling artist in Los Angeles can lead to misery, pain, heartbreak, destitution, and then (maybe, hopefully, luckily) success? That the world is rough, and you have to be made of strong stuff? That it’s possible to lose your identity in a land of extreme narcissism? That if you move to L.A. to be an actress, you have to be aware of the possibility that it might never work out? Congratulations: you do not need to see Ellie Parker. No, not at all.
Oh, Ellie Parker is an unfortunate film. It’s the kind of “experimental” (in this case, read: “not properly thought out”) project beloved by underachieving film students, where they’re hoping their audience won’t notice that their transitions are bad, their photography is weak, and that scenes are allowed to exist for far longer than they should. Where microphones seem sometimes buried in the next room under a blanket, and where humdrum repetition is utilized in a desperate attempt to appear “realistic.” Where talented actors seem hung out to dry. The kind of movie that, even on its own terms, looks cheap and phony. Where everything plays like an extended concept, and not a fully-realized film. That it exists at all is probably due to the saving grace of actress Naomi Watts, who does her hardest to make this character likeable, or at least interesting. The fact that this story of a west-coast nobody is played by Naomi Watts, a big name star (Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams), is supposed to be humorous, or ironic, or something like that. I’m not sure. Are we supposed to try to not think about the fact that it’s her?
Watts plays, yes, Ellie Parker, an actress desperately trying to make ends meet. So far, so good. She goes on audition after audition, using every tool at her disposal to tap into the emotions that will give her a good performance, which will impress mercenary casting agents, which will get her the part, which will get her seen, so that tomorrow maybe she can meet with slightly less cretinous casting agents. As the film opens, she cries her eyes out on an audition as a southern belle, then does a quick change in her car: makeup, clothes, hair, so that she’ll look perfect as a Brooklyn prostitute for a movie being made across town. The traveling scene wants to play up the point that up-and-comers have to transform themselves at a second’s notice, and be almost frighteningly versatile, as if there’s no stopover into their own personality before they dash to another false one. But the scene keeps going and going, long after it has made its point. We see her rehearse sides, take phone calls, change her clothes, and then see her perform the lines again to a polite casting associate for the other movie. And we’re thinking…yes, we get it. No, we really get it. The whole sequence goes from pointed to aimless, and never takes it to the next level. It just sits there.
Perhaps that’s an appropriate reflection, however. Ellie Parker is the kind of woman so self-absorbed she’s barely has a moment’s thought towards introspection. She’s mean, and loves to wallow in self-pity for fun. She’s kind of slow, and short on charm. Her big profundity is when she realizes she can re-spell “therapist” as “the rapist.” Bravo. Over the course of Ellie Parker she finds her boyfriend (Mark Pellegrino) is cheating on her, and that another man on her radar will end up thinking about Johnny Depp when they finally have sex. She complains that she’s being made to do insane actor exercises, because she’s better than that. Her manager dispenses tired dime-store wisdom while convincing her not to quit, and her best friend Sam (Rebecca Rigg) criticizes her acting techniques as “lacking imagination.” When Ellie, in a minor-league act of retaliation, steals a few of Sam’s Vicodin, she is called “entitled.” I think Sam might be onto something.
That this is realistic is undeniable. But it’s not entertaining. It’s depressing, in the same way that a witless story about a witless character is usually depressing. There are indeed lots of Ellie Parkers in the world, ones that hold their loved ones as emotional hostages while they spiral deeper into self-destruction and despair (Ellie’s troubled history is briefly alluded to). It’s so unfair to people like Ellie Parker how others don’t give them a free pass on their behavior, because they have “their reasons.” These people are damaged, but they use that fact to justify bad choices, and it soon outweighs their trauma in the eyes of their friends.
Anyway. The film depicts about three days in the life of Ellie. It doesn’t exactly have a plot, it’s more like a series of random things that happen to Ellie Parker, and sometimes they’re connected. Ellie tries to make herself happy, but her peers frequently betray her, as well they might. There are grace notes that get the existence of a bottom-scraping star just right: when she catches her lover in a clinch with another woman, she is shocked, but she takes time to calmly ask if she got any calls. And then she explodes. Priorities are important. Then she vomits blue ice cream all over himself.
You can see how this would be challenging, perhaps even embarrassing material for a big star like Watts to play, and I give her credit for not shrinking away from the dark side of this character. But I mention the ice-cream bit to try to explain how weird this film is, and how frequently it ping-pongs between moments of quiet observation and others that are shrill and utterly tone-deaf. There’s real pain and need beneath all the desperate partying, the drugs, the mornings spent waking up next to strangers and walking home barefoot, and lines like “I don’t hate myself enough to love you.” Or, “It’s the hardest decision I ever had to make, apart from having an abortion.” A character who says things like that needs to be explored and dealt with, and she isn’t. Every aspect of the film is one-dimensional, and undeserving.
Including its gimmick. While all of this content could have been molded into a searing drama, or a workable comedy (which, I forgot, Ellie Parker bills itself as), the style of the way this film was made is another matter. Shot on low-res digital video, the film strives for a gritty look that suits the mean streets of L.A., but there is still an art to basic videography, which is a trick Ellie Parker completely misses. With its overblown color balances and jerky camera moves, the movie is not just unpleasant to look at–the whole enterprise becomes almost assaultive. Microphones are inefficient; dialogue frequently sounds four rooms away. Even the production design is inconsistent, because there sometimes seems to be a disconnect between the sleazy production offices that Ellie visits. Some are convincing in their shabbiness, and others are just shabby. I realize that the film is trying to adopt a docudrama/mockumentary feel, but even film students know that docs are about more than grabbing a camera and throwing the result on screen. Documentaries also rarely have woefully obvious song selections as part of their soundtrack. Well, maybe Michael Moore films…but, still.
Ellie Parker does do its best to dramatize the life of someone on the outside, grasping to claw their way in. For that, it is valuable. I even like the bold stroke the screenplay makes of dispensing with any scene with which Ellie would explain her desire to be an actress, because when you’re at this stage in your life, who would you do that to, and why, and what would it matter? It’s not a bad film, more like an unsavory, misguided one. Ellie Parker’s life may have a lot of stuff in it, but it all gets old, very fast, and the film exhausts itself making it to the ninety-minute mark. It tells the kind of story that is not very filmic, but would make fodder for a good autobiography, because it would inherently possess wit and self-awareness (in theory). By and by, it’s hard to be the Ellie Parkers of the world. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes very very hard to watch them.
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