by Bob Westal
2004, Un-rated, 95 Minutes,
Ellie Parker is a stripped down to the bone DV comedy about a struggling, utterly dedicated actress driven to the edge of insanity. It has remarkably poor production values and a strange, dark ending. Sound kind of dismal? Well, I’ve left out two very important facts, it’s a genuinely funny screwball comedy, and it stars Naomi Watts.
Based on a 2001 short written and directed by Scott Coffey and starring Ms. Watts before Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams, and The Ring altered her profile from working actress to full-fledged movie star, the expanded version is a few things. It’s a hilarious tour de force performance by the now-world-famous Ms. Watts, a knowing and clever send-up of life in the lower rungs of L.A.’s showbiz ladder, and way too sloppy. We’ll start with the good stuff.
As portrayed by Naomi Watts, Ellie Parker is both admirable and a more than a bit of a mess. Hurtling through L.A. traffic while getting herself into full costume and make-up, going out for jobs as Southern belles and strung-out Mafia bimbos, changing her accent from her native Australian to classic American, to deep, deep Brooklyn and back again. Dealing with a whirlwind audition schedule, the routine insanity of Los Angeles life and even more routine deceptions from her loser heavy-metal musician boyfriend and almost every male she encounters, not to mention arguably insane therapists and acting coaches, it’s a miracle that poor Ellie can survive a single day
Describing just why this is so funny is probably close to impossible, but imagine the pretty and demure Ms. Watts screaming “Yeah. I sucked his cock. I sucked all their cocks!” and you might get the picture. Another scene features Ellie and her best friend (Rebecca Rigg) arguing over acting technique. To settle things, Ellie proposes a challenge: whoever cries first, wins. Ellie begins to wail; her friend starts pointing to nearly invisible tears coming out of her eyes. Both claim victory because their type of weeping will be more artistically effective.
Still, with all of its many highlights, Ellie Parker feels like a draft of a movie, or possibly a rehearsal for a better film. It seems to me the problem is that writer/director/producer Scott Coffey chose to wear one hat to many on the production. Coffey plays the part of a potential new boyfriend for Ellie (they meet when he rear ends her in traffic, Ellie winds up giving him her headshot), and he does so capably. However, Coffey also was did much of the camera work, and that appears to be a credit too far.
In the production notes, Coffey admits he acted as a one-man crew. “It’s made of rice paper, balsa wood, paper mache, scotch tape and spit…I left the film so that the viewer could see the hems still….” True enough, but “hems” like out of focus shots and poor quality video don’t really add immediacy, they just remind us that we’re watching a very low budget movie with a less-than-professional technical crew.
There are other problems, the film’s ventures into more serious areas don’t always mesh with the broad tone of other scenes and it’s not always clear just what is happening to the lead character. One potentially hilarious scene with Chevy Chase portraying Ellie’s manager falls mostly flat for what should be an obvious reason – Ms. Watts deserves a better scene partner than Chase, who’s never moved much beyond the smirking and grimacing stage of his acting development. And the ending is odd. It might ‘seem daring and honest, but to my mind it’s simply half-baked.
Still, Ellie Parker is a rare pleasure. Actors of Naomi Watts’ caliber tend to be straightjacketed with the kind of ultra-serious roles that allow them to emote on an operatic scale. Here she brings the commitment that made her serious work so compelling to a frequently outlandish screwball comedy with its fair share of physical humor. You can have your big dramatic scenes, I’ll take Naomi Watts hopping in acting class like the world’s prettiest kangaroo.