Taking a few pages from their personal histories and their D.C.-set skein “K Street,” George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh have created a compelling document on the struggles of Hollywood actors as embodied by three thesps sort-of playing themselves, as they navigate auditions, sets and the backstage. “Unscripted” boasts a perky, realistic trio, but HBO is again programming for anarrow niche. This one is without many laughs, much sex or grit — and will require blurbs that focus on personality and not occupation to draw an aud with no ties to entertainment.
Surprisingly penetrating considering the superficiality of most actorly interaction, “Unscripted” provides three p.o.v.’s. Single mom Krista Allen tries to move into playing young mothers, though her career is stymied by a “Baywatch”-soft-core porn past and mis-timed outbursts. For Bryan Greenberg, roles in TV shows come easily, and he believes his big break is around the corner. Jennifer Hall is the naive one, eager to learn, though struggling to make a buck and balance acting jobs.
The three actors are brought together in the class of acting guru Goddard Fulton (Frank Langella), who supplies the only honest guidance they seem to get in their lives. Insecurity and a lack of savoir-faire unite them as well.
Yet here’s the rub in this pick-and-choose reality: Allen really is trying to make her “Anger Management” credit dwarf the fact that she starred in several “Emmanuelle” sexpics. Greenberg has had a recurring role on “One Tree Hill,” so the “fiction” of the series is actually a fact in rewind. And Hall’s still picking up cash as a stand-in and trying out for plays at small theaters in Hollywood.
Improvised in some places, scripted in others, “Unscripted” has an imprecise line drawn in the sand. Are we truly seeing what an actor goes through? Or is it an actor’s impression/recollection of what they went through? Or is it a goof — that nobody would believe they way they actually nabbed certain roles, so why not make something up? Be a little clumsy, a little coy, a little unsuspecting.
This isn’t “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which Larry David makes it clear we’re being let in on a little joke. This trio and their friends aren’t showing their cards.
One thing we’re sure of: Langella is not an acting teacher. But in his wondrous baritone, the character of Fulton doesn’t just talk about the craft, he sermonizes. His words about acting naturally have applicability in life as well; his admonition to “do it with conviction and with focus” booms with resonance beyond limning a character.
Ultimately, though, Fulton wants nothing to do with his actors’ lives unless they’re willing to show up in his bedroom. You want his time and you are not a peer, you pay for it.
Establishing a pedagogue to bind this group is rather brilliant. Unlike HBO’s far-less enjoyable look at actors, “Entourage,” “Unscripted’s” characters have a higher power to answer to, not just the motivations of libido and a payday. Yet his words are hardly unquestioned as gospel: each member of the trio understands to a varying degree the Fulton creed. Greenberg appears to grasp it the least, which should mean he will have the fewest moral dilemmas with a job; Hall has her eye on being an actor’s actor, and eventually the sitcom work will wear on her conscience.
Allen, who gets hit with a double whammy as her 6-year-old son starts to get more call-backs than she does, is trying desperately to crawl out of the bed she has made, even as she still trades on her proven appeal as a beauty. There’s more determination than resignation in her characterization, which goes a long way toward making her likable. (Aren’t we all getting a little sick of being asked to have pity on beautiful people?) The 10 half-hours are light-hearted, with pranks, faux pas, misgivings, gatherings at bars and pats on the back occurring in each of the first four segs. It’s serial, yet each episode has a structure that lets each of the four main characters have their say; the end credits roll and the audience feels good about most of them and their decisions.
And didn’t that help make “Sex and the City” a hit?
George Clooney’s direction emphasizes cinema verite, and Tom Inskeep’s reliance on red-hued saturation during daylight hours gives the series a solid doc feel, much like HBO’s “The Corner.” Every actor, even the cameos (Hank Azaria, Garry Marshall, Ann Magnuson, an agent, a casting director, etc.), don’t notice the cameras, complementing that docu look and feel.