Actresses and friends Jess Weixler and Jennifer Prediger make a largely inauspicious debut as filmmakers with “Trouble Dolls,” a scattered portrait of codependent female friendship and the challenges of maintaining artistic integrity and coping with grief. Premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival in the wake of numerous other contemporary tales of young women in the city, including “Girls,” “Frances Ha” and “Obvious Child,” these “Dolls” simply aren’t distinguished enough to stand out. As such, the slight and mildly amusing comedy doesn’t show much potential beyond token fest and ancillary play.
Brunette actress Olivia (Prediger) and blonde artist Nicole (Weixler) share an illegal New York City sublet thanks to an under-the-table arrangement with their intrusive landlord (Jeffrey Tambor), who avails himself of their shower without warning and passive-aggressively nudges them about the rent. After Olivia’s cat suddenly dies, the duo decide to take an impromptu vacation to Hollywood, where Nicole’s wealthy aunt Kimberly (Megan Mullally) judges an “American Idol”-like reality competition show dubbed “That Special Something.”
A fateful visit to a tarot-card reader (Deirdre O’Connell) convinces the friends to team up for a tryout on Kimberly’s show. This becomes the centerpiece of the film, but rather than leading to any sort of fanciful “A Star is Born” big break, Nicole’s insistence on refusing to sell out results in the sort of eccentric performance-art audition that would only happen in a low-budget indie (complete with costumes made from garbage bags and extensive Chekhov quotations). To the film’s credit, no one finds the desperate display very impressive.
Prediger and Weixler keep the vibe loose and the stakes low throughout. Although the film is too polished to qualify as mumblecore, the co-directors seem to have encouraged improvisation not only in their own roles, but also from the trio of comedy vets recruited for variously sized supporting roles. Mullally earns the most screen time as a boozy, flirtatious caricature of Hollywood compromise, while Will Forte nabs the most laughs as an affable nutjob who offers Olivia and Nicole a ride from the airport and winds up ranting about his “mommy.”
Still, the film belongs to the writers/directors/stars, and Weixler — the star of “Teeth” and a recurring player on “The Good Wife” — especially delivers on the promise of her previous work. Her wry comic instincts and uninhibited embrace of any situation (whether it’s making out with Tambor or stuffing her face with pound cake) prove useful in overcoming a shallow character of her own conceiving.
Indeed, where “Trouble Dolls” has the most trouble is in truly defining Olivia and Nicole as individuals. Olivia obsesses over social causes, while Nicole focuses more on her often aborted art projects, but their quirks feel manufactured for comedic effect and indiscriminately applied on a scene-by-scene basis at the expense of character coherence. The bond they share similarly remains hazy throughout, leaving the film pitched somewhere between an ode to female friendship and an unintentional satire of mismatched buddy comedies.
Despite the bumpy narrative, Prediger and Weixler oversee a smooth if nondescript tech package.