It’s difficult to now recall that the first hour of “Mulholland Drive” was predicated upon the question of whether or not Naomi Watts could act. Her performance worked because the film trafficked in the thrill of the unknown: For the audience, grimacing doubt segued into rapt attention when Watts’s Little Mary Sunshine, Betty, mouth full of gleaming pearly whites orthodontized in Deep River, Ontario, entered her first backroom Hollywood audition. Prior to her tremulous and emotional, if admittedly B-movie, line delivery as she read a hokey swath of dialogue with a craggy James Brolin wannabe, we could have only expected more awkward Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm teleprompting–but Watts in one fell swoop convinced everyone that there was something more lurking behind the pert nose and golden locks. From that point on, “Mulholland Drive” functioned as a nonstop succession of revelations, most of them about Betty, and by extension, Watts herself. The irony was thick: as Betty was being swallowed up into the nightmarish Hollywood chasm, Naomi Watts was getting her first big break. Anyone who was actually watching could feel a star being born–and David Lynch‘s film, the primal scene of Watts’s inception into the Hollywood mechanism (doubled, tripled, refracted through funny mirrors, and spat out again), informs every frame of the new movie “Ellie Parker.”
Based on a short made in 2001 before “Mulholland Drive” broke and later expanded to feature length, Scott Coffey‘s “Ellie Parker” is pleasantly shoe-string (even by DV standards), undeniably grungy (for a theatrical release), self-consciously clunky, and often inept; its minor charms are all caught up with its ungainliness, and whatever appreciation viewers are likely to have will be based solely on their own good will. Rather appropriate for a film that would gain such a wide release if not for the good will of its main actress, whose appearance here–after proving herself a rather formidable movie star in “The Ring” and “21 Grams,” and getting her Fay Wray paw prints all over Peter Jackson‘s upcoming “King Kong“–is a commendable sign of generosity and solidarity for all of her friends involved. Loyalty aside, however, Watts still manages to throw herself so fully into this screeching, squealing, vomiting, hectic spasm of a role that you may want to throw a bucket of ice water over her head. Ostensibly a comedy, although its comic targets are so broad (Hollyweird!) and self-mocking (acting exercises are lame!) that it’s less disorientingly amusing than tiresomely familiar.
Which might be the point, but Coffey’s little DV project is so forthrightly affectedly “unaffected” (the camera is rarely placed at a vantage point that makes any spatial sense, and the 180 degree rule is so frequently broken that often it seems as though, even within scenes, we’re watching two separate films spliced together at the last minute) that it leaves Watts’s game full-throttle emotionality stranded. The film belongs to the actress fully, and though she’s up for the challenge of playing Ellie Parker, a desperately unhappy out-of-work actress humorously scooting from one job prospect to the next in L.A. (“I Heart Huckabees” proved her dynamite comic timing), Coffey seems to want nothing more than to humiliate her for the film’s endless 95-minute running time. If edited together as an almost abstracted series of faceless auditions, “Ellie Parker” might have been something, an increasingly looped evocation of actors’ identity loss–and Coffey’s not-even-grunge, pseudo-surveillance aesthetic would have supported such a concept. But as is, Coffey’s script keeps stuffing Ellie’s day with so many cliched embarrassments (boyfriend caught fucking another woman, the meet-cute romantic possibility, pot-smoking reveries) that the cruddy image simply seems what it is (a cheap substitute) rather than a justified visual alternative.
Coffey doesn’t know how to work with his limitations (see Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha” for a master class in how to successfully circumvent budgetary restrictions), but Watts seems determined to retain her dignity, even at the worst moments–admittedly difficult when you’re puking up play-doh-blue ice cream all over the floor, or struggling through an open-mouthed crying jag with cheeks crammed with giant chunks of donut. Even creepier than his exploitation of Naomi Watts’s willingness to expose herself on camera is Coffey’s casting of himself as a untrustworthy cinematographer-cum-antique-shop-worker who grabs Ellie’s romantic attention when he rear ends her car. Looking like an even more emaciated Rodney Bingenheimer, Coffey, once Eighties teen standby (blink-and-miss-him parts in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” nevertheless were memorable enough for generations to exclaim “That guy!” upon seeing his mug), looks sad, hollow, and defeated. Never has a director’s bitterness been so unintentionally wrought onscreen; Watts may be center stage, but it’s Coffey’s face that truly expresses “Ellie Parker”‘s reason for being.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot as well as an editor at Interview magazine and contributor to Film Comment.]
Take 2 By Kristi Mitsuda
“Ellie Parker” has much in common with the estimable HBO series “Unscripted“: a grainy faux-documentary style and a mission to realistically portray the curiously compelling lot of actors struggling towards a one-in-a-million shot at recognition. But unlike “Unscripted,” which clearly channels our sympathies toward the would-be stars as they’re put through the ringer of soul-defeating auditions and acting classes, Coffey’s rendering evinces an apparently subconscious element of mockery–no doubt because the director (it’s Chip from “Shag“!) has his fair share of acting experience to draw from–which spins the feature off in a far bleaker and angrier direction.
On the surface, Coffey wants us to identify with Ellie–evident in his decision to have her spew copious cliches along the ever-popular “I don’t know who I am” and “I feel like I’m waiting for my life to start” lines. But while we’re supposed to humorously empathize with her difficulties, an uncomfortable sensation creeps in as we frequently witness her made a fool; more laughing with, we’re made to laugh derisively at her. The writer-director’s entrenched bitterness nearly bubbles over, which doubly compounds the bilious resignation Ellie ultimately feels. And on a conscious level, Coffey avoids circling hopefully back around in narrative ways you expect via the usual conduits (a new man, the callback). Opposite to the typical American representations of the underdog, “Ellie Parker” takes a backward rather than forward career progression–and this makes it oddly unsettling and exhilarating, even though Ellie’s increasingly downbeat trajectory is, of course, contradicted by the fact of Watts’s rightly rocketing to critical accolades and fame since the movie’s conception, playing, ironically enough, an unemployed actress in “Mulholland Drive.”
If only Coffey had stayed within this framework and continued to play with its animating internal and external tensions rather than tried to afford the movie heft by injecting blandly handled tangential issues of identity and loneliness fostered by the disconnectedness of Los Angeles (already complexly explored in “Collateral“); he needed only take “Ellie Parker”–as schizophrenically and splendidly inhabited by Watts–further down the specific road of disillusionment she travels. The rest is distraction.
Take 3 By Nicolas Rapold
As if to balance her upcoming iconic role as King Kong’s crush, Naomi Watts stars as a hustling nobody actress in Scott Coffey’s feature-length expansion of his 2001 short “Ellie Parker.” Featuring some of the most riveting spazzing by a major (or aiming there) actress in years, this handheld digital-video chronicle of some-days-in-the-life-of seems at first to descend from star-based reality TV, with its on-the-fly unfolding and outtake-like content. But I submit that the film’s true progenitor is the community access sketch show. It’s all there: the outsider-art accidental aesthetic and discontinuity (epitomized in the primitivist jump-cut), the this-is-my-apartment staging (even outside), and the late-night-loopy sketch humor that sometimes hits unexpectedly and otherwise feels therapeutically trance-like. The only thing missing is a campy hand puppet, but a disinterred, unbearably disturbing Chevy Chase serves ably, as Ellie’s agent. And, too, Watts is perhaps a tad well-known to compare to a community access star, but she did star in the original “Ellie Parker” short before “Mulholland Drive” both brought about and dramatized her rise to stardom.
“Parker” continues this self-dramatization and fulfills her penchant for ragged narratives that threaten to swallow up their protagonists (“21 Grams,” “Stay“). Toggling smoothly from one accent to the next and, in the signature scene, changing outfits while driving to an audition, Watts herself seems to muffle her human presence with an intimidatingly tossed-off performance, in which her own intelligence seeps through to makes her character’s supposed distraction and drunk-gal boppin’ seem laughable. The artifice underlines the impolitic question behind all Watts’s performances, in which she renders herself a transparent vessel for emotion but almost clinically so, her technical self-control amounting to something perhaps more “raw” than raw. But she does get nothing but props for making good on the promise of the pre-stardom short and headlining Scott Coffey’s Fantabulous Screen Starlet and Potpourri Show!
[Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer and the assistant editor of Film Comment.]