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Towering Watts: Naomi Watts wants to put her face up all over L.A. in 'Ellie Parker.'

Method Madness

'Ellie Parker' is Scott Coffey's shot-on-DV tale of the agonies and ecstasies of the no-name actress who went on to become Naomi Watts

By Richard von Busack

PRINCE HAMLET said that it would be better never to have been born than to mock actors. But it's hard to resist, isn't it. Sometimes, they are lazy mercenaries taking the easy money. Sometimes, they are vainglorious hams trying to depict the little people (the halt, the lame, the brain-damaged) whom they rarely encounter anymore.

Despite it all, I don't know a critic who doesn't respect actors as a class, for their faith and endurance and courage. What's the greater pleasure, seeing an actor who's had to tough it out for years finally getting his or her hands on something that makes the world gasp? Or is it the revelation of a new talent that makes it all worthwhile?

It might be the latter. It is easy to remember the effect of first seeing Naomi Watts in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. Watts played the virginal beauty-contest winner Betty Elms from Deep River, Ontario, who got a movie contract, just like the starlets of the studio days.

The first inkling of Watts' great talent came in a scene where she shows how fast she can work as an actress. Betty is auditioning against a walnut-tanned old lecher of an actor (Chad Everett, a 1970s TV fixture). She uses her lean body and her youth to make the canned scene come alive. Watts demonstrates how an actor has to size up a situation and turn it to her advantage.

Mulholland Dr. went more loco than that, even. Watts had signed up for a TV series but then followed along when the series was dropped, and Lynch turned what was left into the movie. The film version was more sexually explicit. Remember that this wasn't what Watts signed up for; and Lynch isn't a director who explains what he's doing.

A lot of actresses might have given up after an explicit masturbation scene. The shock of displaying such a personal moment is profound, and it's probably worse seeing it afterward onscreen. (Watts told a preview audience I was in that filming the masturbation scene left her with tears of shame. Watching the movie, her feelings of desperation and despair are tangible.)

But Watts has survived, thriving in apeshit roles—as one could describe acting with the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood, as Watts will in the upcoming King Kong. She is lovely and haggard in 21 Grams and perky and silly in a prime disaster like I Heart Huckabees.

Her newest film may not add up to a hill of beans, but Elle Parker demonstrates Watts has sanity, as well as a sense of humor about her work.

Ellie Parker is about the foibles of an Australian-born no-name actress, stuck in the whirlpool that is L.A. Scott Coffey has expanded his 17-minute digital-video short, begun when Watts wasn't famous and finished after she achieved fame.

In a sense, Watts reprises Betty Elms' audition. During a cross-town drive, while yakking on the cell phone, Ellie uses the driver's seat of her Volkswagen as a dressing room. By the time she arrives, she has transformed herself from a Scarlett O'Horror Southern madwoman to Alphabet City crack whore.

The film conveys the love and hate of the L.A. experience. Actors on a hike take in a hilltop view of the city, a dung-colored smog bowl punctured by cruel and ugly skyscrapers, and sigh, "It's beautiful."

Coffey's best idea is a shot of a rugged L.A. cityscape in aerial view, which he then fades into the spiky peaks and crevasses inside a 5-gallon tub of blueberry sherbet. (Watts is charmingly childlike, devouring the hell out of an ice cream cone as she drives, a little solace after a lousy day.)

Ellie needs her little pleasures. She leads a dog's life, waiting for phone calls, going to useless psychoanalysis, roiling on a carpet pretending to be an animal in acting class and fighting with her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend. Justin (Mark Pellegrino) is an electric guitar walloper, and he has a Chinese ideograph tattooed on his shoulder, possibly reading "Deadbeat."

On Friday night, it's off to a punk club. A round of "How many bands are in the audience tonight?" lapses into a dream date with a stranger. Romantically, he answers Ellie's question "Can you drive?" with "I'm too drunk to walk!" Somewhere in the haze of whirling lights, Ellie is messed up enough to start reciting the "Oh, for a muse of fire" prologue from Henry V.

Expanding a short to feature length is rarely a good idea, and Ellie Parker is no exception. It contains about a half-hour of padding. And it would all be just plain intolerable without Coffey's wit and Watts' genuine yet unpretentious talent.

On one of Ellie's passages through L.A., the camera flashes past a theater marquee double-billing The Day of the Locust and Play It As It Lays (Day Five of the Anhedonia Film Fest?). Happily, Ellie Parker is less like a visit to Joan Didion's shell-shock ward and more like hanging out with the ditherers in Bruce Wagner's Hollywood novels.

Ellie Parker is amused by failure, indolence and dishonesty in the Industry. It even admires the bullshitters (a wearily suave Chevy Chase, playing an agent, seems to exist in a realm beyond truth and falsehood). And, always, Ellie Parker is dazzled by a place where adults act so much like toddlers.

Ellie Parker (Unrated; 94 min.), directed and written by Scott Coffey, photographed by Scott Coffey and Blair Mastbaum and starring Naomi Watts and Mark Pellegrino, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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