“Pretty Bad Actress” is a pretty muddled movie, distinguished by vertiginous tonal shifts, wildly uneven performances, hit-and-miss satirical thrusts, and cavernous gaps in narrative logic. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear just when this strained farce — involving a fallen-from-grace former child star who may get a career boost from her own kidnapping — is supposed to take place. Conspicuous displays of VHS tapes, flip-top phones, and other period indicators appear to be hallmarks of a 1990s period piece. Sporadically, however, there are pop-culture references that suggest a contemporary timeframe. Even before writer-director Nick Scown springs a brazenly absurd third-act plot twist, it’s tempting to entertain the possibility that, hey, maybe everybody involved in this untidy enterprise simply made things up as they went along.
Despite being cast in the title role, Heather McComb actually gives a credible and creditable performance that consistently stands out as one of the film’s few saving graces. She plays Gloria Green, an actress who years ago made an indelible impact as Trudy, a plucky teen descendant of Harry Houdini, in a comedy-adventure television series.
In the chaotic world according to “Pretty Bad Actress,” this long -canceled show remains tremendously popular in reruns. But that’s of little comfort to the career-stalled Gloria. After years of bad movies, worse behavior, and tabloid-trumpeted substance abuse, she is lucky to land an audition, much less an acting gig. At one point, we see her being humiliated by a casting director who calls her in only because he wants to capture her on camera singing the “Trudie” theme song. We’re left with the impression that this is far from the first time she has endured such an indignity.
Still, Gloria continues to attract a fair share of loyal admirers (and annoyingly pushy autograph hounds). Her No. 1 fan: Dawnee (Stephanie Hodes), a bespectacled nerd who is a much-teased outcast at her high school primarily (but not entirely) because of her slavish devotion to all things Trudie. You might consider it a grievous misfortune to witness the abduction of your idol by a stalker (John Hensley), especially if you’re taken captive in the process. But not Dawnee: Being tied up in a basement near a similarly bound Gloria, and having the chance to talk with her for hours, is less a wide-awake nightmare than a dream come true.
Borrowing freely from a variety of other, better movies — including “The Silence of the Lambs,” from which the stalker apparently culled fashion tips, and “The King of Comedy” — Scown has stitched together a lumpy patchwork that is obviously intended as an edgy dark comedy about the pursuit of fame and the obsession of fans. Far too often, however, he is content to traffic in toothless outrageousness, even when he focuses on the shameless efforts of Gloria’s amoral agent (Danny Woodburn) to exploit her abduction as TV-movie fodder.
There are signs scattered throughout the movie — most notably, the unreasonable demands placed on Cheryl (Jillian Bell), Gloria’s personal assistant — that Scown is familiar with the territory he’s covering. (At one point, there’s a shout-out to Variety’s own Dave McNary.) But his cartoonish exaggerations are too overbearing by half, and his movie as a whole is too silly for the satire to draw blood. The funniest thing here is the opening credits montage, which concisely charts Gloria’s post-Trudie downward trajectory while alternating between bad career moves (including a Playboy spread and a lame horror flick) and brushes with the law.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that Heather McComb has in common with her character a past as a child actor: She played the title role in “Life Without Zoe,” Francis Ford Coppola’s contribution to the 1989 anthology film “New York Stories.” Unlike Gloria, McComb has managed to find steady employment as an adult in film and television. It remains to be seen, however, how prominently she will list “Pretty Bad Actress” on her résumé.