Yes, Los Angeles is known as a city of artifice. “L.A. Times,” the debut feature from writer/director Michelle Morgan, follows a tradition of reveling in the tiny details of a particular LA experience, while skewering the more unbearable traits of the city’s inhabitants. These episodes find comic sparks, but in the repetitive disappointments of its characters’ lives the film settles into a portrait of modern malaise with few distinguishing twists.
“L.A. Times” finds its core in Annette (Morgan), a once-aspiring author struggling to find fulfillment in her relationship with Elliot, a staff writer on a “Game of Thrones”-style hit show. Annette’s unhappy because she thinks other couples are happier; her single friend Baker (Dree Hemingway) is also unhappy, striking out with a series of men who include Jimmy (Adam Shapiro), the star of Elliot’s show. As the branches of Annette’s discontent grow, they snag missed connection Ben (Robert Schwartzman), savvy prostitute Ingrid (Margarita Levieva), and Baker’s cousin Peter (Kentucker Audley).
As a writer and performer, Morgan shows an affinity for elevated living room banter in the style of Whit Stillman. (More than once, Annette feels like a direct descendant of Lady Susan from last year’s “Love & Friendship.”) However, this whirling vortex of dysfunctional friends and acquaintances feel like an unfocused and self-absorbed melange of frustration. It’s a parade of broken people, connected only by their fruitless pursuits of happiness. Annette acknowledges and repeats this refrain, but as these characters cast about listlessly for something to hold onto, so does the film.
Some vignettes have all the pieces in place. One restaurant conversation has a pitch-perfect banal traffic dissection, all under the careful gaze of a taxidermied meerkat. It’s a flourish that indicates an instinct for the off-kilter rhythms of LA life. Similarly, Morgan captures the disconnect and reliance on location-based convenience that can power LA friend groups. But the film finds little to do with these observations, and we’re left to note that LA can be a series of quirks.
The result of all these character sketches is a film that feels more like 10 episodes of a web series in search of an ending, each paying tribute to a different version of the city in which it’s set. There’s the Old Hollywood lounge where this piecemeal group of friends gathers to crack wise about the nature of prostitution, the late-’70s house drenched in orange (complete with a landline), the neutral minimalist living room only built for natural lighting. It’s a handsome slide show, but without strong characters they’re only backdrops.
Audley brings a tragic level of melancholy to Peter’s puppy-dog exterior, making him a little endearing even as things turn dark. Shapiro has fun with Jimmy’s persona as an outsized and vapid TV star, but the film never lets him stray too far from a cartoonish characterization of LA actors. While Ingrid seesaws between empowered sex worker and vehicle for one man’s search for relationship clarity, Levieva handles both elements well.
Despite the disjointed trajectories, Morgan shows that she has the comic tools to do something special with a more focused story. While the story frequently stalls, the script breathes life back into these scenes with some choice one-liners. The occasional Ozu joke, an outrageous charade response, and a running gag about a foreign film investor all come along to provide a handy jolt. “L.A. Times” is a writer’s showcase, but more as a display of potential than a finished product.
“L.A. Times” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.