Tom Huang’s sophomore feature “Why Am I Doing This?” merits time-capsule placement as a dead-on representation of what it’s like to be struggling talent on the Hollywood periphery, circa 2010. As a state-of-the-art ensemble seriocomedy, it’s less of a keeper, script and pacing being even-keeled to a fault; the film might have worked as well or better as a series of webisodes. Nonetheless, the characters and situations remain diverting. Showcase run in Los Angeles, starting today, should play well to hometown auds, with a DVD release planned for summer.
A large roll-call of rainbow-coalition L.A. residents orbit around two 30-year-old flatmates, played by writer-helmer Huang and Anthony Montgomery. Tony (Huang) is an aspiring actor fed up with having to play Asian stereotypes when he’s lucky enough to get a part. To avoid hitting up his disapproving family for cash once again, he caters industry parties he’d rather be invited to and dons latex as a noncopyright-infringing “Spider-Guy” at children’s birthday parties. At one such gig, he hits it off with a fellow entertainer in a Care Bear-esque costume, even before she doffs her giant furry head to reveal herself as schoolteacher Katie (Lynn Chen).
Lester (Montgomery) suffers similar indignities, spending his days as a hated dispenser of parking tickets and his nights as a standup comedian. On the rare occasions he’s noticed by talent agents, they (as well as a cousin-manager played by Joe Torry) only advise that his style needs to be “more black,” a la Martin Lawrence. Lester’s women troubles are twofold: He’s in love with Nira (Sheetal Sheth), but she seems to prefer staying just friends, while his drama-queen mother, Natalie (Valerie Pettiford), has been hitting new heights of needy hysteria since his fed-up dad (Obba Babatunde) moved out.
Marginal figures weaving in and out include Tony’s nemesis (Teddy Chen Culver), a more handsome thesp who gets the roles he covets; Danny (Dion Basco), his gangsta-styled, perpetually in-trouble younger sib; Amber (Emma Caulfield), a blonde party girl who uses her hotness to demand favors at any hour of day or night; Nira’s flamboyantly racist father (Gerry Bednob); the ex-girlfriend (Fernanda Andrade) Tony’s family keeps pushing him to get back with; and comedian Jake Johannsen and vet thesp Clyde Kusatsu playing themselves as the leads’ professional role models.
Huang mixes things up by tossing in any number of gimmicky narrative interruptions, including fake commercials, a musicvideo, biographical slideshows, man-on-the-street interviews and a sarcastic game of “Name That Asian!” But these frenetic interludes have an awfully familiar feel, and in truth, there’s little fresh inspiration in the pic’s satirical jabs at showbiz. “Why?” is at its best in the realm of character writing, and in two-hander scenes that quietly reveal the heart of relationships.
The filmmaker deserves props for not taking formulaic ways out — there’s no pot of big-break gold for our protags here, just an eventual coming to terms with more realistic notions of success. But for all its low-key insights, funny moments and lived-in performances, the pic could use better-defined peaks and valleys, and a stronger overall arc. One thing follows another with so little major tonal variation that one feels the longish feature could have been cut or extended to any length without significant change. The intended cuteness at the pic’s close is dissipated by the sense that Huang really couldn’t figure out any more graceful or climactic note to end on.
Packaging is adequate. Screener reviewed lacked full final credits crawl.