The complexities of artistic temperament are a frequently frustrating subject for filmmakers, who want to get inside the headspace of fellow creatives, but often wind up simply illustrating difficult behavior. In actress Melora Walters’ first feature as writer-director, “Waterlily Jaguar,” James Le Gros plays a commercially successful author facing some sort of life crisis that makes him tough to be around, particularly for wife Mira Sorvino. But while the film spend much time noting his dyspeptic demeanor and its effect on others, this muddled character study provides scant insight into what its protagonist is going through.
Intriguingly offbeat to a point, the movie (which counts Paul Thomas Anderson among its executive producers) ultimately seems like a rough draft for something Walters hadn’t fully worked out before filming, then attempted to fix via improvised scenes and editorial gambits. Released almost two years after its festival premiere (during which interim she directed a TV movie and second indie feature), it launches May 19 on streaming platforms and DVD.
We first meet Robert Price (Le Gros) in a bar where his solitary cocktail is interrupted by a stranger who claims to want to read his fortune. He soon huffs off, but it’s typical of “Waterlily Jaguar” that this initially promising confrontation comes out of and goes nowhere: We never learn why Bob is here, or what the woman was really after. Perhaps she recognized him as a famous writer whose latest tome has been a bestseller for months? That celebrity, we soon learn, he finds akin to an “endless colonoscopy.”
But then despite his resultant wealth and comfortable SoCal home, Bob seems to dislike just about everything. His general misanthropy lifts only somewhat to let in the attempted soothings of gallery owner and sometime-painter spouse Helen (Sorvino). She complains he’s changed, but we have no idea what he was like before. She also worries he may be drinking himself to death, yet despite his frequently conking out on a leather couch, we see little evidence of that.
If these elements are meant to be deliberately ambiguous, “Waterlily Jaguar” fails to communicate such intent. Its spotty narrative and random editorial strategies seem haphazard, rather than an attempt to embody a complicated creative mindset. (The imminent “Shirley” with Elisabeth Moss offers a contrastingly astute example of using tricky storytelling to illuminate an “impossible” artistic mentality.)
We glean Bob’s books are the kinds of potboilers that sell like hotcakes at airports, when he’d hoped to be the “next Raymond Carver” or Nabokov. But he now becomes atypically obsessed with the “La Brea Woman,” an approximately 9,000-year-old skeleton that’s been the only human remains found in the Tar Pits. Apparently killed by a blow to the head, she once roamed the same terrain where he now lives. Why does her mystery resonate with him so, to the point where Helen suspects his distraction is evidence of infidelity?
That’s perhaps the biggest gap in Walters’ sketchy screenplay, one not at all filled in by Bob’s occasional visions of a very modern-looking “Woman” (Jessica Ceballos) in the picturesque buff. Nonetheless, he sets out not just to write about this ancient personage, but create an apparent verse epic on the subject — acutely distressing his slick agent (Dominic Monaghan as Bill) and publishers. Even that process feels an underdeveloped conceit, as Walters seldom shows Bob doing anything that looks like “writing.”
He does occasionally nag assistant Wilhelmina (Stacey Oristano) for relevant research, when they’re not just trading barbs. Theirs is an adversarial dynamic that intrigues without leading anywhere, just like the relationships between Helen and her own over-flirtatious assistant (Christopher Backus), or Wilhelmina and married Bill, who are having an affair.
But the primary focus here rests on a marriage apparently crumbling under new stress without our grasping how it ever worked, if it did. Sorvino limns a straightforwardly sympathetic if exasperated spouse grieving for a husband who in psychological terms has pretty much left the building, à la Elvis. Yet the script doesn’t make their past mutual rapport palpable. As precisely as Le Gros details Bob’s current funk, we don’t detect there’s any happier “old self” he’s left behind, as Helen insists.
The versatile actor makes Bob hunch-shouldered, dour, easy to accept as an intellect so disillusioned by success that he doesn’t “see the point of anything anymore.” All the performers do good work, but one can sense them trying to invent character logic (and sometimes whole scenes) with very little to guide them. In Le Gros’ hands, Bob is entirely credible, yet there’s no definition to whatever journey he’s supposed to be undergoing. Is he having a mental breakdown? A boozy relapse? A creative-identity collapse? When he and the film reach endpoint, we’re presumably meant to experience tragedy, but instead can only shrug, “Huh?”
Likewise, scenes in which Sorvino makes like Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita,” or Monaghan rehearses a speech in his car, feel like ad libs that don’t riff from a strong screenplay foundation, instead attempting to compensate for its lack. Patrick Meade Jones’ often shakily handheld camerawork, Dale Fabrigar’s disparate editing approaches and the soundtrack’s deployment of rather obvious classical themes all come off as attempts to graft form onto material that’s all premise, no follow-through. There’s the seed of an interesting idea (or even several) in “Waterlily Jaguar.” But after an hour and a half, it’s barely sprouted.