Queen of the Lot
Written and Directed by Henry Jaglom
Starring: Tanna Frederick, Noah Wyle, Christopher Rydell
Run Time: 115 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Critic David Thomson once said that Henry Jaglom had invented a new kind of movie, where people more or less play themselves, and the plot is life itself rather than a developing theme. Dialogue is mainly improvised. Any complications arise because the people insist on playing themselves. At the same time, he adds, the action is as shapely as a short story.
Unexpected and sassy as ever, Jaglom’s latest resembles an especially in-bred episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Long since copied by everyone, including Larry David and Jennifer Jason Leigh, his films charm in a cultish low-budget way.
Like several previous offerings, “Queen of the Lot” stars his muse Tanna Frederick, she of the long red curls and skinny frame (someone give that girl some French fries, quick!) This time she’s Maggie Chase, a B-movie actress under house arrest for a DUI conviction that comes with a security anklet.
A faux-naif from Iowa Maggie just wants to make it in pictures and find true love. But Maggie’s pill-popping and boozing ways have made her into a Lindsay Lohan wannabe, lending viewers sobering insights into Hollywood lifestyles.
Taking refuge at her manager’s house, Maggie summons her ministering handlers and healers (Ron Vignone, Diane Salinger, David Proval and Zack Norman). It helps that Maggie’s ankle bracelet, while huge, is vaguely reminiscent of funky S&M jewelry. It also helps that Frederick has elegant feet, as we get to see them a lot (another Jaglom fetish, along with Norma Shearer, perhaps?)
As played by Frederick Maggie’s not as naive as she seems, yet she still doesn’t know she hasn’t a hope as she fixates on diva-hood. There’s something likable about her – she’s just too real, Googling her publicity and trying to beat Angelina Jolie’s Google points record while flashing her anklet.
As in his big 1983 Karen Black hit, “Can She Cook A Cherry Pie?” Jaglom’s loose and easygoing approach to filmmaking is a home-movie journal, featuring faces you vaguely recognize as B-list Angelinos. All regulars in his movies, where everyone’s a huge fan of everyone, they’re also his friends and quite a few turn out to be relations.
In so far as Maggie and the movie have another theme, it’s addiction – but not just addiction to the pills and booze she downs: also addiction to trying to make it at any cost, maybe also addiction to failure and not making it, she broods.
“Your brain and my brain together make up one whole brain, don’t ever leave me,” says her no-good egotistical, cheating boyfriend (Christopher Rydell), a.k.a. Dov Lambert, from Hollywood royalty. Well, that might be a bit optimistic, particularly in his case. Meanwhile both are struggling in a privileged Hollywood way, chafing and miserable under her house arrest, forever waiting for their luck to turn.
Then Dov’s failed screenwriter brother Aaron (Noah Wyle) shows up with a recently broken heart, moves in, and abruptly challenges her:
“You walk around wanting to be recognized! Why would you want that?” “Why wouldn’t I want that?”
“Why am I attracted to someone as superficial as that?”
And we wonder too. Ambivalently hanging out in the house loaned by her manager, haunted by Jagloms, handlers, hangers on, and journalists who come to interview her about her trashy past, Maggie tries to convert “rehab” into tabloid gold. Soon she’s trashed everywhere and, loving it all, from her rebirthing experience to her yapping dog.
Maggie’s substance abuse meeting is particularly funny – “I’m addicted to not being addicted!” complains one participant. Another healer tells Maggie about her chakras, and gets the low-down skinny on her irritable bowel syndrome. Maggie’s manager has shout fests on the phone with, yes, Larry David. Peter Bogdanovich holds forth about the impossibility of remaking Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise.” He’s probably been doing that for decades.
At a dinner party for Dov’s Hollywood royalty family, a new film project falls asunder in a heap of “pitch-me’s,” a cop arrives to check Maggie’s ankle bracelet and then lets her off because he wants to get into movies, another B starlet tries to sweet-talk Maggie into being part of her film-school homework, and Maggie continues to spar with Aaron.
But when Dov seduces an idiotic bare-breasted starlet in their pool – a starlet that Maggie idiotically kisses back – Aaron’s fresh-broken heart opens up to her. “I’m ugly, stupid, annoying, and I suck at acting…” says Maggie in yet another burst of self-absorption. Her manager’s demise feels tacked-on, but Aaron saves the day and Maggie, while Maggie saves Dov.
It’s not a great ending. But late the night before, Maggie kisses Aaron in the sweetest and most touching screen kiss ever. It’s worth replaying for lessons in how to seduce. Truly, this is an adorable embrace, one to earmark for YouTube, with a tragic Billie Holiday soundtrack, “Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.” (Jaglom’s soundtracks are a big part of his charm for me.)
But it’s also an aberrant note in the movie, which plays like a low-key but scarily accurate satire of Hollywood life, one to make all you Hollywood aspirants think harder about taking the plane – or the next painkiller, or glass of wine. Meanwhile, what’s not to like about this movie?