Low budget indie flicks that explore the wacky world of Hollywood are a dime a dozen. In order to really stand out they need some special extra factor and Ellie Parker has it in Naomi Watts, the Ring and King Kong star who delivers a bold, brave performance as the title character. Watts' Parker is a woman at a crossroads, both in terms of her career and her personal life. The film's great first sequence shows Ellie driving from one audition to another, switching gears and attitude based on the role for which she's auditioning. She starts out reading a melodramatic southern belle monolog for an arty thick-rimmed glasses-wearing director, then pulls off a deft outfit and make-up change while driving to the next audition, all the while rehearsing hilarious dialog that sounds like an outtake from Raging Bull.
This tour de force opening shows Watts to be an extremely versatile actress, racing through acting styles and emotions at high speed with no thought to whether or not she looks ridiculous in the process. If the entire film had consisted of Watts racing from audition to audition I still would have been riveted. The handicam DV style allows the audience to feel very present as Watts tears through the material, changing accents and tones with the same fever that she tears off her clothes mid-freeway.
The film changes gears when it heads into Ellie's private life, including her tool of a boyfriend (played by Capote's Mark Pellegrino) and her friend Sam (Rebecca Riggs). Director Scott Coffey turns up as Chris, a strange guy who rear ends Ellie and becomes a confusing, bizarre figure in her life.
As ridiculous as the events get (and, thanks to the outstanding cast, they get pretty ridiculous) we always feel like we're right there with Ellie, thanks to the deceptively simple filmmaking and Watts' incredulous performance. While the film doesn't wink at the audience, you do almost feel as if Watts could turn to you at any moment and sigh "Can you believe this shit?"
While the camera work is simple and the DV style has its limitations, the film does hold a few visual surprises, including a shot of blue sherbet that looks like some sort of intergalactic landscape and an unexpected blanket of pink flower petals. By playing it relatively safe for most of the film Coffey is able to really catch the viewer off-guard with his few well-placed visually stylized moments. Like Ellie, we're left momentarily stunned.
Similarly, a couple of star turns come as surprises. While he's listed in the credits, Chevy Chase is still a shocker as Ellie's manager late in the film. His performance is different from anything I've seen him do before. It's understated and personal.
The story isn't necessarily anything new but the treatment is fresh and the acting is great. Watts in particular gives a performance that's both over the top (it takes guts for a beautiful actress to cry with a mouth full of donuts into a wide-angle lens) and subtle at the same time. Fans of the actress should definitely check it out.
The widescreen anamorphic video suffers from typical DV video quality issues. It looks fine for what it is but it will never look as good as a real film.
The audio is very spotty, depending on location. Sometimes it is marred by a lot of echo while other times it's fine.
The disc contains a nice collection of extras, including a commentary track with director Scott Coffey, alternate takes and deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes segment, and a trailer.
The commentary track is interesting and relaxed. Coffey talks about the hilarious guerilla creation of the film (which was shot over the course of 6 years) and the development of the Ellie Parker character. He's a good listen, although of course it would be great to have Watts on the track as well. The audio quality is uneven but it's a good track.
There's a nice selection of 13 alternate scenes and outtakes. Given the loose structure of the film it's easy to imagine a lot of additional storylines that didn't make the cut and since Coffey and Watts love their heroine so much it's nice to see some of the other paths they had in mind for her.
The behind-the-scenes segment isn't a documentary. It's just a five minute clip of the shooting of the Chevy Chase scene. It's fun to see the production from this alternate angle and it's apparently worth noting that the person holding the camera becomes particularly interested in the label on Watts' Juicy Couture jacket.
There is also a cute trailer and as well as trailers for four other Strand releases: Loggerheads, Mysterious Skin, Cote D'Azur and Tony Takitani.
Ellie Parker could have felt stale and derivative, but Coffey and Watts attack the material with verve and humor and come up with something new. Watts in particular stands out here. Let's hope Hollywood gives her more roles that take advantage of her full range of talents soon.