After shooting to stardom playing an aspiring actress in “Mulholland Drive,” Naomi Watts again goes the audition route, this time in a humorous vein, in “Ellie Parker.” Mysterious and transcendent in David Lynch’s transfixing mind-bender, Watts delightfully displays her comic talents here as a frustrated but game trooper thrashing around the low end of the Hollywood food chain. Without Watts, Scott Coffey’s feature-length expansion of his identically titled short wouldn’t amount to much and, even with her, pic’s garage-film aesthetic will limit commercial possibilities to a modest fraction of the specialty audience.
Initial 16-minute short, shot in two days, scored at Sundance in 2001, whereupon Coffey and Watts (who had acted together in both “Tank Girl” and “Mulholland”) made three more shorts centered on the same character. Four vignettes were subsequently re-edited and augmented with recently shot scenes to create a slight but appealing piece that achieves its cohesiveness not through narrative development but via lively character revelation in reaction to successive humiliations.
Some of these have to do with the audition process and the expectation of rejection it fosters; such interludes are amusing and behaviorally believable, although nothing comes close to Watts’ astonishing audition scene in “Mulholland.”
Fresher and more telling is the interstitial tissue that emerges as the film’s most substantial material: Ellie’s necessary use of her car as a dressing room, in which she must change elaborate costumes, apply makeup and fix her hair, sometimes while frantically driving to an audition that may well be canceled; her getting into character and rehearsing lines and trying to nail a Brooklyn accent, also in the car and while fighting Los Angeles traffic and, hilariously, indulging in an impromptu contest with her best friend and similarly thwarted thesp, Sam (Rebecca Rigg) — again in the car — to see who can cry fastest.
Ellie’s life is no more stable on the personal front. Smartly walking out on her oafish musician b.f. (Mark Pelligrino), she meets cute (in a driving mishap, no less) with Chris (Coffey), an appealing but flighty alleged cinematographer with whom she indulges in an intermittent flirtation until an ill-advised consummation results in a self-esteem catastrophe that’s uproarious and cringe-provoking in equal measure.
Fruitfully working in a close collaboration that began before Watts’ ascent to stardom, and with Coffey initially shooting on a one-chip digital camera with no crew, the pair projects a lightly sardonic but unjaundiced view of Hollywood craziness and the fragmented, inauthentic lifestyle it foments. Shot mostly in the hills within minutes of the famed Hollywood sign, pic catches recognizable private moments and rhythms that large-scale films tend to ignore, although in the end, it feels exactly like what it is, a bunch of nicely observed but incidental vignettes written on the cinematic equivalent of very thin paper.
Ultimately, “Ellie Parker” stands as definitive proof of Watts’ quicksilver talent and self-effacing good-sportsmanship. In a way few A-list Hollywood actresses would ever dream of, Watts permits the most unglamorous microscopic scrutiny by Coffey’s in-her-face low-end camera and emerges not only as appealing and lovely as ever but as a first-rate comedienne who reminds by turns of a more real-world Carole Lombard and Lucille Ball. Her star shines brightly here despite the most humble of circumstances.
Grainy, unstable vid look is accompanied by harsh sound quality.