“Hollywood Seagull” updates Chekhov’s play by turning it into a tepid soap opera set in a gated clifftop Malibu compound inhabited by a bitter ex-movie star, her family and associates. This long-aborning first feature from director Michael Guinzburg comes off as a bit of a vanity showcase for his muse, co-scenarist, producer and star, Lara Romanoff, but the results are less than enchanting. After several years in the editing room (it was shot in 2009), the pic opened Dec. 27 at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, with further exposure likely to be an uphill struggle.
Villa Francesca is the oceanfront abode inhabited by retired judge Bruce (Biff McGuire), who named it after his late wife. A temporary resident is Bruce’s unhappy grandson Travis (Will Poston), an aspiring film director at odds with his unsupportive, bitchy mother, Irene Del Mar (Barbara Williams), who’s aged out of her erstwhile screen stardom but is no less self-absorbed and competitive for lack of work. Her lover is successful mainstream director Barry (Jay Laisne); Travis’ is Nina (Romanoff), a Russian emigre pursuing her own dream of Hollywood stardom. But so far she’s gotten no further than reality TV gigs, unless you count her enshrinement in the latest “cerebral” project by Travis: self-funded short “Fresh Tomorrows,” which, when premiered for the guests, earns only Irene’s callous derision. (It’s hard to disagree with her valuation, since the clip we see looks like a New Age informercial.)
This latest failure sends “my loser son” into a tailspin, as Nina considers rehitching her wagon to the infatuated Barry, incurring Irene’s jealous displeasure. Meanwhile, there are other chains of unrequited amour: Family friend Melvin (Stevie D. White) loves Mandy (Blake Lindsley), the daughter of estate caretaker Frank (Time Winters). Mandy loves Travis, but he only loves Nina, who now loves Barry. Frank’s wife, Pauline (Christopher Callen), loves plastic surgeon Dr. Don (Sal Viscuso), who loves Irene — but she only loves his silicone and Botox.
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As in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” various conflicts boil over, a gun is used, several characters depart (for Manhattan rather than Moscow), then are met again upon their return two years later — when things overall remain sorta the same, only a little worse. Yet despite retaining the basic narrative architecture of its classic source, “Hollywood Seagull” too often feels like a trite, sudsy take on privilege, ambition and angst among showbiz players and wannabes — one that seemingly exists mostly to showcase real-life C-listers, aspirants and pals in the tradition of Henry Jaglom’s films.
Guinzburg and Romanoff’s dialogue is clumsily expositional when not romance-novel banal, wheezing after bon mots (“When love is a one-way street, buckle up!”) or dully insider-ish. (Commenting on the oppressive sameness of this lot’s days, Irene chirps, “It’s like Billy Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’ — excruciating!”) You know a film’s hold on reality is tenuous when a lunch party of supposedly jaded industry types breaks out in an enthusiastic rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” or when characters express surprise that an al fresco screening hasn’t started yet — when it’s still broad daylight.
Veteran McGuire’s restrained authority is welcome in an otherwise uneven cast, and those of whom the greatest histrionics are demanded are often seen to the least advantage. Romanoff’s own script has Nina called everything from “beautiful” (repeatedly) to “deep and profound,” but neither her performance nor her vehicle conveys these qualities very effectively. While the input of three editors has resulted in a brisk pace, the pic nonetheless has a mid-’80s daytime-serial feel in both aesthetics and emotion. Otherwise, tech and design contributions are routinely pro.