Film Reviews

Over and Dunne

"From Academy Award-nominated director Griffin Dunne..." Wait a minute. Hold the phone. That guy who co-starred with Madonna in Who's That Girl? The guy who directed the Sandra Bullock witch movie Practical Magic and the Meg Ryan stalker movie Addicted to Love? That Griffin Dunne?

Yep, he's Oscar-nominated. In the "Best Live-Action Short" category. The fact that said short starred Kate "Mrs. Spielberg" Capshaw and Tobey Maguire probably didn't hurt; competition among short films is significantly reduced if you can land a couple of big stars. Certainly, Dunne's feature directorial output so far has been nothing to write the Academy about, which is perhaps why he has taken a Dogme-like tack with his latest, Lisa Picard Is Famous. A fake documentary about the perils of fame, the film stars Dunne more or less as himself (his character is named Andrew in the end credits, but the name is never spoken onscreen, so it might as well be Griffin), shooting a digital video documentary on a young New York actress named Lisa Picard (Laura Kirk), whom he believes to be on the verge of stardom. The lead in a salacious Wheat Chex commercial ("a believable story with characters you could really care about"), Lisa has finally gotten what may be her big break, a role in the opening scene of a Melissa Gilbert TV movie titled A Phone Call for Help.

Meanwhile, Lisa's best friend Tate (Nat DeWolf), whose biggest break has been as a distracting extra on a daytime soap, is putting on his own one-man show, Hate Crimes and Broken Hearts, all about homophobia, gay-bashing and the perils of being an "out" actor (when pressed, he admits to never having personally experienced any of those perils). Griffin/Andrew follows the duo with his camera and crew of two, chronicling the ups and downs of their friendship, particularly when an ex-lover of Tate's comes into play, a closeted celebrity who felt the need to dump Tate after he became a known quantity.

Dunne is certainly well-connected--signing Capshaw and Maguire for his short film was nothing compared to the celebrities he lines up for cameos in this low-budget effort, either as talking heads or active participants in the story. These include Buck Henry, Sandra Bullock, Carrie Fisher (cradling the dog from There's Something About Mary), Penelope Ann Miller, Charlie Sheen, Spike Lee, Fisher Stevens (discussing the extreme method acting he underwent for Short Circuit 2) and Mira Sorvino (who also produced).

Now, here comes the question, the key one you must ask yourself before going to see Lisa Picard Is Famous (or is it simply Famous? Not only do the end and opening credits disagree, but the opening title--the longer one--is followed by a dictionary definition of the word "famous," as if that's the title we'd just been shown). The question is this: Is it still funny to watch actors be really pretentious about trivial things while celebrities drone on about how much it sucks to be them? If the answer to that question is yes, then you must rush out and see this film. If the answer is no, you may yet find moments of amusement, but the effect is akin to eating cold pizza for breakfast: It may go down all right, primarily because it reminds you of an earlier and better meal, but can you honestly say it would be your first choice if you could have any food you wanted?

Toward the end the director announces that if he had just wanted a film about the pitfalls of fame, he "might as well have just stayed home and rented Valley of the Dolls." At that point, he decides to remedy things, but it's a little bit late. Being self-aware of your own derivativeness doesn't exonerate you from it.

Now, there are likely many people who will find this kind of criticism excessively harsh, given that the film is competently made and all that. So let's give credit where credit is due. There are several genuine chuckles to be had, and while it would be unfair to reveal them all, perhaps just one is worth relaying. As Lisa and Tate watch an old videotape of an unreleased stop-motion dinosaur film in which Lisa played a mute cave girl trapped in a time vortex, she straight-facedly tells us how bleak and depressing she found the material (this during a scene of two horrendously fake monsters pummeling one another) but that she was able to find her motivation by remembering how it feels to work as a temp, seeing as how temps, much like cave women trapped in time vortexes, have no past, no future and must enter a different world every day.

Leads Kirk and DeWolf, who also wrote the script and undoubtedly improvised much of the action with Dunne, are appealing, game, willing to treat really stupid roles as the most important thing ever and have that bland look of regular folks trying to make themselves look like generic stars while somehow removing all genuine personality from their faces. But the film feels like what it is: an improvised comedy bit between friends.

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Luke Y. Thompson