What is it about Los Angeles that makes it prone to multicharacter, excess-minded ensembles and devoted tributes to itself disguised as critiques? Well, as we learned from Paul Haggis's ethnography-as-racial-burlesque "Crash," everyone in that city just sort of, well, crashes into each other--presumptively it's strictly a car thing, because I've had my share of sidewalk collisions while walking on New York's even more crowded streets. Perhaps the city's denizens are united by a certain, unspoken shared misery, eventually exacerbated or cleansed by some greater destructive force, as in "Short Cuts" and "Magnolia." Or is it that everyone oozes an icky superficiality that doubles as a mighty adhesive, connecting disparate people stuck in ignoble circumstances, as in "Happy Endings" or "Boogie Nights"?
Whatever the reason, director Jason Freeland feels the need to try his hand at this subgenre, tackling, in only his second feature, a sprawling study of a pack of tangentially related young people trying to make it in Los Angeles, all either exploiters or the exploited. The trick of many of these movies it that their dovetailing narratives and multiple characters give off the impression that the director is ambitious, but more often they're anything but, haphazardly jamming together half-formed tidbits of stories like ill-fitting jigsaw pieces. This is not to say that fleeting moments cannot add up to satisfying narratives - each of the marvelous single-take segments of Rodrigo Garcia's "Nine Lives," for instance, felt like fully achieved short fictions. In Freeland's case, one might wish he would venture at perfecting a single coherent narrative before trying to weave together several.
Indeed, not one of the various storylines in "Garden Party" would make for a particularly compelling standalone movie. Instead we have a boatload of types drifting into and away from each other like flotsam: April (Willa Holland), escaping from a lascivious stepfather who, like Freeland's camera, ogles her in the bathroom; she in turn lets photographer Anthony (Patrick Fischler, also known as Creepy Guy from Winkie's Diner in "Mulholland Drive") take erotic photos of her for online use; meanwhile Anthony also approaches sexually confused Nathan (Alexander Cendese), an overworked office lackey who gives a ride home to homeless twinkie indie rocker Sammy (Erik Smith), who's just trying to make it in this town while writing terrible songs called, for instance, "Garden Party," and et cetera, et cetera. Momentarily lighting up the glum proceedings is "Eyes Wide Shut"'s Vinessa Shaw, whose marijuana-growing real-estate agent Sally may be too much of an incongruous femme-fatale construct, but at least she's having obvious fun with the ridiculous role, even scraping gum off her high heels with a self-aware sultriness.
Otherwise it's minor problems and simple solutions across the board. How to bring a closet case out of his shell? Take him out dancing! (And cue the weird slow-mo close-up of tight-jeaned rumps bumping up against each other like cavorting piglets). And though you've got to seriously distrust a film that posits the signing of a record contract as a blissed-out happy ending (welcome to the industry, bud), overall "Garden Party" is mostly inoffensive fluff. Despite its meager flirtations with Los Angeles as a sexually predatory beast, there's about as much tangible danger here as in an episode of "Joey." Naturally we get a final, foreboding zoom into the Hollywood sign, a catch-all image perhaps meant to evoke the dread of rootlessness, but which only reinforces that shallow Hollywood products come in packages big and small.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]