Ellie Parker

20300645Not too long ago, only Nicole Kidman and fans of 1995’s Tank Girl would even have recognized Naomi Watts on the street. Today, of course, she’s the Oscar-nominated It Girl who got to step into the shoes of Fay Wray and Nanako Matsushima. So what does it take to get from Children of the Corn IV to King Kong? Watts’ labor of love Ellie Parker provides the answer, if little else.

As played by Watts, Ellie is an Aussie transplant howling in the banal wilderness of Hollywood, trudging through one insipid audition after another. A neurotic with the prerequisite jerky boyfriend, Ellie seems baffled by the idea that being an actress means nobody wants you for yourself. Yet there she is, gamely trying on accents and outfits while driving on the freeway, all for the privilege of spewing her guts in front of blasé casting agents. Acting is hell. Auditioning is hell. L.A. is hell.

The movie isn’t hell, though it functions as pretty much a demo tape for Naomi. At one point in Watts’ career, of course, Ellie Parker was a short film that premiered at Sundance in early 2001, before Mulholland Drive (with its own memorable audition scene) officially put Watts on the Actresses to Watch list. At that point, the short film reflected Watts’ own reality. Expanded to feature length by its original writer-director Scott Coffey, Ellie Parker reads less as a calling card than as Watts’ bid for indie cred in the year of Kong.

Some of the details are funny — a Method acting class that encourages the hapless students to regress and behave like animals seems like an extension of the institutionalized humiliation of struggling actors. A cameo appearance by a big movie star moonlighting as a rock musician subtly underlines the unconscious pomposity of those who make it big and then yearn for obscurity (even though his band probably wouldn’t get many gigs if it didn’t have an A-list star in it). Chevy Chase does achieve indie cred in a short, sharp bit as Ellie’s agent, who seems to look at Ellie and see fifty past, present and future clients just like her.

Ellie says she can’t remember why she wanted to be an actress in the first place. We don’t know either, really. Watts doesn’t quite allow Ellie to be as smart (or as talented) as Watts must be in real life. Ellie is the cautionary, alternate-universe Naomi Watts who has yet to be hired by David Lynch for a doomed ABC series that will become a cult film. From what we see, Ellie just isn’t that great — she metamorphoses impressively, but so do most of the competition. What Ellie isn’t allowed is the intensity and intimacy that Watts’ Betty showed in her audition scene in Mulholland Drive. If Ellie does have the right stuff, she’s never given the role (or the audience) that would bring it out of her. Her tipping point is when she must audition for a bunch of stoned Eurotrash “producers.”

I’m sure that Watts’ impulse to revisit this cathartic piece four years after she herself broke through was a generous one, a show of kindred feeling for her acting sisters who are still plugging along like Ellie. But it’s a bit like watching Meryl Streep doing an impersonation of a hack actress in Postcards from the Edge — it’s a bit disingenuous, and it’s tough to forget who we’re watching. Undignified gags like barfing up blue ice cream and fishing around in a dumpster don’t help much. At times we can’t tell whether Ellie is meant to be admired for her persistence or ridiculed for the same.

Watts fans will, of course, want to see Ellie Parker regardless of what I or anyone else say about it. On a basic level, it does remind us that the scream queen and heavy dramatic actress can also do comedy. It’s worth a look for her alone, though the very people most likely to seek it out will also know that she’s better than the actress she’s playing — and, frankly, better than the material.

Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, comedy, satire

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