Four characters dangle precariously from their respective perches on the Hollywood power ladder in Neil LaBute’s “The Money Shot,” an acid-tongued showbiz satire that makes up in belly laughs and inspired performances what it lacks in nuance or novelty. This is a somewhat kinder, gentler LaBute piece, in which cruelty takes a backseat to a kind of blithe, self-absorbed cluelessness. And while its targets may be obvious — celebrity egomania, self-congratulatory activism, trashy blockbusters, diet fads — the barbed accuracy with which “The Money Shot” shoots them down is a minor but consistent pleasure. Whether or not a Broadway transfer lies in the offing for the author’s latest, an L.A. staging is certainly called for.
LaBute is certainly no stranger to the Hollywood trenches, where he’s carved out a prolific if erratic movie career in the two decades since his 1997 Sundance breakout “In the Company of Men” — an odd mix of personal projects and jobs-for-hire that has run the gamut from a prestige literary adaptation (“Possession”) to an entertainingly hokey “urban” thriller (“Lakeview Terrace”) and one catastrophically bad horror remake (“The Wicker Man”). So it’s not surprising that many of the observations in “The Money Shot” have the ring of slightly exaggerated truth, of too many hours logged meeting with upward-failing studio executives and listening to the vacuous bloviations of overpaid actors on the heated, bamboo-lined patios of their Laurel Canyon mansions.
It’s on one such patio that most of “The Money Shot” unfolds. We’re at the home of Karen (Elizabeth Reaser), an Oscar-nominated actress of a certain age whose career hasn’t been the same since she came out as a lesbian, and who’s graciously (if reluctantly) segued into the role of celebrity spokesperson for a range of brands and causes (the one, LaBute makes clear, indistinguishable from the other, so long as it keeps her face out there). Now, Karen is primed to make a comeback in “Jackhammer,” the latest movie by a provocative, Cannes-lauded director, starring opposite Steve (Fred Weller), an aging action star (shades of LaBute’s “Wicker Man” lead, Nicolas Cage) known for his popular “Pain Merchant” franchise. To push “Jackhammer’”s zeitgeist value, the director wants his stars to … well, to do something a tad unorthodox onscreen. And so they convene on this particular evening to discuss the matter with their respective partners: Karen’s girlfriend Bev (Callie Thorne), an assistant editor who wields her Brown film degree like a weapon; and Steve’s wife Missy (Gia Crovatin), a stick-thin blonde bombshell half his age.
It doesn’t take long to divine the elephant in “The Money Shot’s” room — an idea as old as Terry Southern’s 1970 novel “Blue Movie” and as recent as Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac.” But it does take LaBute’s characters an awfully long time (more than an hour) to cut to the chase, just as (in an inversion of the famous gag from Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel”) these dinner guests never quite make it from hors d’oeuvres to the main course. Which is, of course, precisely the point. “Why is it so impossible to have a conversation about anything of worth in L.A.?” laments Bev, LaBute’s obvious surrogate here, though one hardly immune from her own self-serving pomposity.
For the better part of two hours, this foursome parry and thrust without ever moving in for the kill, looping into endless curlicue digressions on such fraught topics as the true inventor of cinema, the parentage of David Crosby, the struggle to receive proper screen credit and the infuriating snarl of traffic on the 101 Freeway. But so spirited is the jousting — and LaBute’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of acerbic zingers — that one could easily watch it all go on even longer and more absurdly into the night. And if some of LaBute’s gags feel a touch shopworn (like the characters’ inseparability from their mobile devices), he has several rip-roaring showstoppers up his sleeve, including Missy’s impromptu performance of a scene from the musical version of “The Crucible,” and a climactic display of athletic prowess that leaves “Rocky” looking positively staid by comparison.
Playing a variation on a familiar LaBute type — the cocksure, alpha-male a-hole — Weller is an absolute joy to watch, looking every inch the youth-chasing SoCal stoner/bad-boy in leather jacket, goatee and sockless loafers, spewing his casual racism, sexism and homophobia (in his baked, far-out-man patois) faster than his insincere apologies can keep up. (In one of the show’s funniest bits, he recalls watching — and watching, and watching — as Stevie Wonder searched unsuccessfully for a dropped fork at The Ivy.) Reaser (who replaced Heather Graham in rehearsals) strikes just the right note of swanning, insecure divadom, while Thorne has a terrific, slow-burning rage as the lone intellectual in this bunch (and, possibly, this town). But the happiest surprise here is Crovatin, who finds a stealth grace lurking beneath Missy’s inches-thick bimbo facade. She may not be the smartest gal in the room, but by the time the curtain comes down, she seems, in her way, the most sincere.
Director Terry Kinney keeps the actors moving nimbly around Derek McLane’s static set, with its panoramic picture-window view of the glittering skyline, evoking Roman Polanski’s observation that “‘Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, as long as seen at night and from a distance.”