"Why are you so nice to me?"
"Because you're sexy and French. I want to get in your pants."
As the credits rolled on the feature film debut of director Jason Bushman, I rushed to my computer to look up the filmography of lead actor Eric Debets. So enraptured with his charm and presence, I was convinced he must have a long and illustrious career in his native France. Imagine my surprise when the only other film to show up by his name was the short "Serene Hunter", another project from Bushman that I had already seen. Surely, this had to be a mistake--how can this immensely engaging actor have such a modest history on camera?
Suddenly, the story in Hollywood, je t'aime had new meaning--and a repeat viewing was in store. Perhaps Bushman was making a statement about fame and his friend, who here plays a man trying to break through as an actor in the City of Angels. Handsome Jérôme Beaunez wakes up one dreary day in Paris, looking out his window into his gray existence: "The horror..." he proclaims as the overcast day perfectly fits his sullen mood. Still in love with his ex-boyfriend Gilles (Jonathan Blanc)--who has moved on to a newer, younger conquest--Jérôme dreams of the sunny beaches (and blond beach boys) of California, a utopia he envisions as the perfect escape for all his troubles.
So as Christmastime nears, he hops on a plane for a two-week vacation in Hollywood--and Bushman shifts from black and white to full color as the story shifts locations and Jérôme starts to smile (think of this as a Bizarro flip of Paris, je t'aime mixed with The Wizard of Oz, only with a gay Frenchman in place of Dorothy and Toto now called Foxy Brown). The only problem? Our protagonist is short on cash, which limits his living arrangements and his fun. Thankfully, a cast of quirky characters soon enters his life, keeping things interesting for Jérôme and for us.
There's stoner Ross (associate producer Chad Allen), who runs into Jérôme on the beach and develops an immediate connection with him. A former hairstylist who now makes a living selling weed, Ross wants to help his new friend become a star. Meanwhile, a chance encounter with tranny hooker Kaleesha (Diarra Kilpatrick) brings Jérôme to the doorstep of bitter queen Norma Desire (Michael Airington), who opens up his home while offering a word of warning to the attractive new tenant: "Far be it from me to piss on your parade Jérôme, but let me give you a little advice: No one gets discovered anymore. That element of the Hollywood dream? It's long expired."
But that doesn't deter Jérôme, who remains steadfast in his resolve. Along the way, he stumbles both professionally and personally as he wanders the streets of West Hollywood and Silverlake, trying to get accustomed to American customs (he's a terrible tipper), the unforgiving public transportation in Los Angeles--and the constant reminder that he looks like a famous American movie star. Things get more complicated when those around him develop feelings for the heartbreaker, who has increasingly vivid daydreams about Gilles (his ex starts to take on a guardian angel role in Jérôme's distracting fantasies: "You have much to learn here...don't leave them."). Suddenly lost and confused, he begins to question what he really wants in life--and if he made the right choice.
But unlike Jérôme, Hollywood, je t'aime is in no hurry to get anywhere, and it's relaxed pace is refreshing. It's like a postcard of love not only to California (the camera loves to linger on the scenery), but to anyone who ever had a broken heart. Bushman's small but assured film moves seamlessly from segment to segment, flowing with a fluidity that's remarkable considering I had no idea where it was going. Frankly, I didn't care--these characters are so lovable, you just want to watch their lives unfold.
Debets is so comfortable, like he's playing himself. So much of the role relies on his expressive face, which is surprisingly versatile considering the film constantly demands his eyes and demeanor to be stuck in a sad, dejected frown. Just a subtle shift in his eyelids or forehead is all it takes to move you, and his mouth is equally powerful--even a slight (practically indecipherable) smile speaks volumes, grabbing your heart and taking you on his intense journey of emotions. This isn't an easy role, and many a foreign actor has floundered when asked to convincingly fit into an English-language story and environment; it often doesn't feel natural. But Debets is simply perfect--as an actor, he's never lost or out of place (the exact same qualities that are demanded of his character). He's awkward and adorable, fumbling his way through life, aching for love just like the rest of us.
And everyone here supports him beautifully: Allen refuses to let his stoner be a one-note role, throwing us a few curveballs along the way to help us see past his hippy persona (his coaching of Jérôme in the ways of the Hollywood rules is sad and funny at the same time, and surely comes from experience); Airington softens up after a less-than-admirable first impression as Norma; and Kilpatrick steals your heart as the hooker who falls under Jérôme's spell. She has undeniable star quality that is endearing. I couldn't keep my eyes off her face during at least two key scenes: a close call with Jérôme when he talks about renovating his new room, and a backstory revelation later (where, among other accomplishments, she brings to life a character we never meet). She nails the difficult delivery, breathing energy into her lines as she embraces her character's vulnerability (a recurring theme with everyone here).
No role here goes unnoticed--a frustrated casting director (Kelly Ebsary); the blond surfer boy (Jake Olson) of Jérôme's dreams ("La Californie! Tu jour laytay!"); Ross' clueless ("Are you Italian?") stoner agent friend Trish (Whitney Anderson); a gruff immigration agent (Matthew J. Cates); a lost, hard-partying waiter (Scott Romstadt); the turn it on/turn it off commercial actress (Pamela J. Morgan); fellow wannabe Tiffani (Leah Rachel); two over-enthusiastic actors trying out for a music video (Sarah Domin and Randall Bacon); an irritable manager (Akiko Shima) at the Hostel to the Stars ...everyone here makes the most of their minutes.
Bushman also makes the most of the script, which hits just the right notes. The story unfolds naturally and the script is heartbreaking and hysterical, a work that I think is best described as "human". That's quite a feat considering that fantasy-like elements dictate much of the plot--and considering that it's hard to actually take Jérôme's quest seriously (his severe lack of preparation or concern perhaps hints at the film's ultimate focus). I love the tone of Hollywood, je t'aime, which hovers somewhere between the clouds and the pavement. You half expect Jérôme to break that fourth wall at some point like he knows he's being watched, the butt of some cosmic joke. But don't we all feel that way sometimes?
There are frequent laughs along the way--most of them subtle, some of them not (including a few great casting calls, one which reminded me of Kramer's audition on Seinfeld)--and none of them detract from the film's compassionate core. I also have to commend Bushman for his musical choices--both Timo Chen's score and the fantastic song selection are perfect. The music and lyrics here perfectly support the film's feelings and enhance the viewing experience.
Many viewers might say that not much happens in Hollywood, je t'aime, but they're missing the point. This is a loving piece of cinema, a slice of life story about a fish out of water that--despite every indication that it's at least part fantasy--remains relatable and grounded in reality. I was disappointed when the film was over--not because of what unfolded on screen, but because the stories of these characters were now complete, their futures left to my curious mind. The director thankfully doesn't force anything; he leaves you questioning so much about these people and hints at deep, meaningful stories sadly left untold. I would give anything to watch them continue on the screen. Bravo, Mr. Bushman...bravo!
"It's funny...when the weather is beautiful all the time, it's no longer special..."
The disc sent for this review was a screener, so the last word on its quality is best left for later (if Wolfe provides the final product). The image here wasn't terrible or great (the overall drab look fits the film's tone), perfectly fine for this low-budget entry; the good news is that this screener was an anamorphic widescreen presentation.
The English 2.0 track (with English subtitles for the brief French-spoken scenes) is modest but also gets the job done; again, we can't be certain this screener peaks to the final quality, but there was nothing here to prevent a recommendation.
The film's trailer was included on this screener disc; the final product apparently has deleted scenes and an audio commentary (which I would love to listen to!).
Whimsical and fantasy-like yet grounded in reality, Hollywood, je t'aime is a love letter not only to California, but to anyone who yearns for something special in life. Chronicling the adventures of a Parisian lost (in more ways than one) in the City of Quirky Angels, the film is funny, heartbreaking and hopeful--and proves that love is universal. Led by a script that's serious yet sweet--and endearing performances from top to bottom--it unfolds on its own terms and at its own relaxed pace. I had no idea where it was going, but when it was over, I desperately wanted more. The film comes highly recommended, but until we receive a final copy of the disc, I'll (begrudgingly) temper my enthusiasm with a Recommended.