You sure you want to be a “Creative?”
A traditional maxim about comedy is that “no one gets hurt.” Black comedies challenge this maxim, but not so much that we stop laughing. Rather, we are on the edge between laughing and wincing. And that’s where I was during the 95 minutes of Ellie Parker, which I think is absolutely brilliant.
Ellie Parker wants to be an actress and drives around L.A. going from audition to audition. The material she tries to bring to life is absolute trash. She auditions to play a southern belle in one scene, a NY-junkie-whore in another. Cliche, cliche, cliche. And yet, it’s painfully obvious that Ellie is a great actress. Really great. It’s not just that we’re told something like “She’s classically trained” or “she’s won critical plaudits.” We actually see how good she is. This only works because Naomi Watts is absolutely amazing. Jaw dropping. Without her—or someone of her caliber—this film wouldn’t work.
That summary sounds sort of plotless. But this film never lags. Yes, it is a “slice-of-life” sort of story: a series of dramatic scenes skillfully cut together by a very talented editor (two editors, actually). However, the story does have a spine: Ellie’s trying to get a decent role. Every scene is dramatic. Some of the scenes are absolute gold—such as Ellie and her girlfriend competing to see who can cry first.
In fact, many of the scenes are overly dramatic, because almost every character we see is an actor. They are all so used to playing other people that they act, think, and feel in dramatic terms. Everyone is a drama queen. When Ellie’s dumbshit ex-boyfriend comes to find her at a girlfriend’s apartment, the girlfriend goes outside and makes a scene the whole neighborhood can see. She then tells Ellie that the ex “has a violent history.” Does he? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s the sort of thing that someone on a TV drama would say, and that, I think, is why she says it.
I don’t want to suggest this is some “I’m so clever I’m above Hollywood” sort of movie. It’s not. The comedy is very subtle. You’re not watching this and thinking how dumb the characters are. At least I wasn’t. Stephen Holden in the New York Times called Ellie unsympathetic. I disagree. Ellie is entirely sympathetic. That’s what makes this story such a gut-wrenching experience.
And I’ve never seen a better portrait of what it’s really like to live in L.A (where I lived for five dog-years). The bleached out colors. The constant, uniform brightness. The endless driving across town—from Venice to Hollywood to West L.A. Always being in your car. The boutiques. The shitty, Spanish-style apartments. The helicopters flying over all the time. In the director’s commentary, Scott Coffey says he had to leave L.A. after doing this film. I can see why.
Coffey says something else in his commentary that stuck with me: “What if Ellie succeeds?” And this is something that is going through your mind as you watch this. Is this goal worth pursuing? Does she really want to be cast in these roles? Say she’s cast as the junkie-whore. What will come next? Probably a string of junky-whore roles. So, in a sense, she wants to get these parts. But sometimes what you wish for can turn out to be the worst thing for you.
The ending, though subtle, hints that Ellie has figured something out, which was a nice way to end it without going all Hollywood on us. Without this little grace note, the film would have been needlessly depressing—a throwback to the 70’s. As it is, it’s a wonderful film.