Indie stalwart Henry Jaglom churns out Queen of the Lot
FILM Some mainstream filmmakers grow so encumbered by the industry-within an-industry they've become that they profess yearning for those "small, personal" projects they started out with — often vowing they'll get right back there just as soon as they've finished the obligatory Behemoth IV: The Next Generation in 3-D. (Coppola actually did it; Lucas needs to stop saying he will until he actually quits finding new ways to commercially reanimate the charred remains of Star Wars. Meaning never.)
It is exceedingly rare to find a director who over the long haul has managed to make nothing but small, personal projects, particularly if they're American and within orbit of Hollywood influence. How could you resist admiring such a person's determination and purity of intent?
Well, there may be exceptions. For nearly four decades, Henry Jaglom has been creating "personal" movies like other people make home movies — privately, prolifically, perhaps indiscriminately. He uses the same stable of cronies, some short-termers and some long, as well as their homes (or his own) as settings. His method (or Method — he did train under Lee Strasberg) echoes the semi-improv, amorphous ensemble feel of Robert Altman movies like Nashville (1975), albeit in a manner that seldom transcends the bubble of participants' very Hollywood-centric perceptions of reality.
These features no doubt delight those actively involved — their self-satisfaction is tumescent — but can become an exasperating bore for anyone else forced to watch. The last good movie Jaglom made was the uncommonly disciplined Last Summer in the Hamptons 15 years ago. His new Queen of the Lot doesn't change its status.
After her second DUI, improbable action-flick star Maggie Chase (Tanna Frederick) is placed under ankle-bracelet house arrest. She chooses to spend it at the impressive hilltop manse of her manager, along with a vain married actor boyfriend (Christopher Rydell) and a posse of personal assistants. Then she moves to the equally expansive digs of said BF's historied showbiz family, all either industry players or dedicated wannabes. There, Maggie finds herself attracted to her ne'er-do-well mate's supposedly worse brother (Noah Wyle, so thoughtfully restrained you wonder how he strayed into such company).
This shrill, shapeless enterprise lurches from feeble satire to clumsy melodrama, never seeming more credible or necessary than another excuse for Jaglom's pals to indulge themselves in public. The cast includes faces from the past (like Dennis Christopher from 1979's Breaking Away), Jaglom perennials, several children of stars, and miscellaneous industry insiders. When exactly was it that Jaglom decided anyone on his dinner party list was automatically fascinating enough to play a "character" onscreen? His first four features, all flawed but interesting, at least tried to be about other people. Since 1984, with a couple exceptions, they've become like the windbag who clears rooms upon arrival, because no matter whom he talks to or about, the overweening subject will be the World of Me and Mine.
Playing a famous director here is famous director Peter Bogdanovich, who once was criticized for making indulgent movies that foisted then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd on the public in unsuitable roles. Yet he never made films as insular and irrelevant as most of Jaglom's. Nor did he ever showcase a talent as effortful, unappealing, and limited as Frederick, "discovered" when she wrote Jaglom a fan letter some years ago — having heard that anyone who flattered his movies might get cast in one. (She pretended to worship the unerringly titled 1997 Déjà vu, which she hadn't even seen.) Is that a cute story — both director and actor never tire of telling it — or the symptom of an atrophied imagination?