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November 16-22, 2005

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Ellie Parker

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 for you never to be born than to mock actors. But it's hard to resist, isn't it? Sometimes, actors 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 hands on something that makes the world gasp? Or is it the revelation of a new talent that makes it all worthwhile?

Ellie Parker is about the foibles of an Australian-born nonname actress stuck in the whirlpool that is L.A. Scott Coffey expands his 17-minute digital video short, begun when its star, Naomi Watts, wasn't famous and finished now that she is well known. Watts' finest work was a scene about acting. In David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, she demonstrated how marvelously fast an actor has to size up a situation and turn it to her advantage. Watts does it again, showing how her Ellie has to transform during a cross-town drive between auditions, changing from a Scarlett O'Horror Southern madwoman to Alphabet City crack whore.

Coffey's best idea is a shot of a rugged L.A. cityscape in aerial view, fading into the spiky peaks and crevasses inside a five-gallon tub of blueberry sherbet. (Watts is charmingly childlike, devouring the hell out of an ice cream cone, a little solace after a troubled day.) She needs her little pleasures. Elle is a moaner, complaining about her miserable life passed in waiting for phone calls, going to bootless psychoanalysis sessions, roiling on a carpet in acting class, pretending to be an animal, and fighting with her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend.

He is called Justin (Mark Pellegrino), and he is an electric-guitar walloper with a Chinese ideograph tattooed on his shoulder, possibly reading "Deadbeat." On Friday night, it's off to an après-punk-club endrunkening. A round of "How many bands are in the audience tonight?" lapses into a dream date with a stranger; romantically, he answers her 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 prologue of Henry V.

Expanding a short is rarely a good idea, and Ellie Parker is no exception; it contains about a half-hour of padding. The film would be intolerable without Coffey's sense of humor and without Watts' genuine yet unpretentious talent. On one of Ellie's passages through L.A., the camera flashes past a theater double-billing 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 a stretch hanging out with the ditherers in Bruce Wagner's Hollywood novels. It's amused by failure, indolence and dishonesty in the Industry and the facility of its bullshitters, even when they're being honest (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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