| Sometimes you can pinpoint the actual moment when an actor becomes a star. For Naomi
Watts, it was the astonishing audition sequence in MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Playing an aspiring
actress negotiating the pitfalls of Hollywood, she made magic with that one sequence. Subsequently,
she has become a full-fledged movie star, thanks to her lead role in the American remake of
THE RING and her Academy Award nominated turn opposite Sean Penn in 21 GRAMS. Back
when she was still struggling though, she agreed to play another aspiring thespian in Scott Coffey’s
digital video short ELLIE PARKER, which was screened at Sundance in 2001. The positive
reaction to that small project led to offers to turn the tale into a cable series. Watts demurred in
order to pursue her burgeoning film career, but she didn’t abandon the character. Between gigs,
she would collaborate with Coffey on other “episodes” in Ellie’s life until they had enough material
to fashion a feature-length film. Four years later, that film ended up at Sundance and then received
a theatrical release.
The plot, such as it is, focuses on Ellie’s struggles as an actress in Los Angeles. She utilizes her
car as a dressing room, changing clothes, applying fresh makeup, fixing her hair, and practicing her
lines,all while navigating the freeways. Along the way, she deals with her less than supportive musician
boyfriend (Mark Pelligrino), her rivalry with best pal Sam (Rebecca Rigg), also an aspiring actress,
and a potential new suitor (Coffey), as well as various industry types. There’s an inside quality to the
movie that doesn’t exactly transcend its limited viewpoint, and some of its comic targets have been
dealt with to better effect in other films and on television (including the HBO series UNSCRIPTED).
Ellie undergoes various humiliations and rejections in her struggle to land that one big role and one
cannot but think that Watts is drawing on her own struggles. The actress delivers a tour de force
as Ellie, who negotiates almost every possible emotion over the course of the film.
For me, there were two standout scenes and both involved Rebecca Rigg. One was a horrid
acting class where the participants are asked to play animals and recreate humiliating or traumatic
experiences from their childhoods. Rigg whispers conspiratorially, “Do you think Meryl Streep
had to do this s—t?” The other is after the class when the two women debate Method acting
versus simply using your imagination. They agree to a contest to see who can cry first. Watts
indulges in the Method – screwing her face up and concentrating on some trauma. Rigg, who
is driving, merely gets quiet and allows a single tear to stream down her face. Although they claim
a draw, I’d give the advantage to Rigg, who purloins the scene from the more histrionic Watts.
ELLIE PARKER is ultimately too small a film in its scope to achieve the director’s stated
metaphor for modern American life. It affords Watts a chance to emote and flex her acting muscles
in ways that some of her more recent efforts. But overall, the narcissism of the lead character makes
her less than sympathetic and whatever satire writer-director Coffey may have intended falls flat.
MPAA Rating: NONE
Running time: 95 mins.
Viewed at Magno Review Two
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.