Hollywood Lives, Hollywood Lies

Barry Levinson's 1992 fantasy Toys was an interesting flop. Who would have thought that the man who directed Bugsy, The Natural and Rain Man; who wrote ...And Justice For All; who wrote and directed the acclaimed Baltimore trinity, Diner, Tin Men and Avalon, would lose his objectivity in what he called his personal movie, the movie he had unsuccessfully tried to get the studios to make for years? But that sin of indulgent misdirection is expiated enough in Jimmy Hollywood, an offbeat dramedy about a would-be star waiting to be born, to consider Toys a momentary lapse in an otherwise impressive body of work. Though Levinson doesn't realize Jimmy Hollywood fully, his direction and script are filled with sufficient quirkiness and perception to make the film worth seeing.

Levinson's best move was casting the redoubtable Joe Pesci in the role of Jimmy Alto, a seven-year L.A. resident with a "New Joisey" swagger who got the nickname "Jimmy Hollywood" because everybody back home knew he'd wind up a star. Jimmy, who is first seen reeling off the names of the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as if they were of metaphysical import, is so driven to become an actor that he "borrows" the savings of his hairdresser girlfriend Lorraine (Victoria Abril, a Spanish actress best known for her roles in Pedro Almodovar's films) to place a hammy advertisement for "Jimmy Alto, Actor Extraordinaire" on a downtown bus bench. "It's a big traffic-flow area" is his justification to Lorraine. "It's an investment in us."

Levinson makes Jimmy an edgy figure of fun, a man who doesn't need a stage mother because he's his own stage mother. Jimmy's the sort who, never having had an acting job of any type, boasts of the parts he didn't get ("I think they felt I was a little too strong for Andy Griffith," he concludes about a lost role on Matlock) and goes to minor-player casting calls determined to read for leads. As he did in My Cousin Vinny, Pesci makes good comic use of his nervy, know-all-the-angles attitude.

But early in the film, Levinson switches gears, turning Jimmy Hollywood into King of Comedy via The Day of the Locust. After Lorraine gets mugged and Jimmy's car radio is stolen, Jimmy surveys the vile underbelly into which the streets of Hollywood have degenerated and decides to become a crusader for justice. With his friend William (Christian Slater), a lost soul with an unspecified brain disorder, Jimmy protects Tinsel Town from the criminal element by videotaping offenders, capturing them God knows how and depositing them at the police station. Assuming the guise of Jericho -- a role he can't play, the Method actor frets, until he figures out the life history of his character -- Jimmy becomes the leader of a two-person vigilante group reminiscent of the Symbionese Liberation Army. If these watchdog maneuvers sound serious, they are. So much so that, tiring of simply catching the crooks, Jimmy and William branch out into intimidation tactics such as hijacking a miscreant, terrifying him and then releasing him to take tales of the vigilantes back to other criminals.

Yet Levinson has Jimmy carry a gun loaded with blanks since, as Jimmy tells the disbelieving Lorraine, if he's a good enough actor, the illusion of power should suffice. Which is to say, the movie oscillates wildly in its intentions. Jimmy's original goal is to draw attention not to himself but rather to the scum that populates Hollywood Boulevard, and considerable film time is spent on Death Wish-style pursuits. Robbie Robertson's suggestively desperate, emotionally implicative soundtrack and Peter Sova's tinted cinematography (grainy shots of seedy streets, a ripped American flag streaming, a hollow-looking Hollywood Bowl and a mummified Egyptian Theater) give the movie a gritty, exposed feel. But when the police go after Jericho and his band (which, given all the criminals apprehended, the cops speculate must number 50 members) and the media gives Jimmy/Jericho's silhouetted video messages extended coverage, Jimmy goes off the deep end, beaming, "It's as good as a rave review."

Awash in the addictive pleasure of a successful performance, Jimmy brushes aside nagging questions about how justified his actions are, and Levinson meanwhile neglects how amusing they at first appeared. It's as if Pesci's cartoonish character from the Home Alone movies took on the maniacal personality traits that made his Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas a monster.

When Levinson hones in on the inanities that pass for intelligent conversation between Jimmy and William, the movie takes on the acute, humorous shades that made Diner and Tin Men so terrific. One of the funniest bits involves The Mummy: William explains that as a child he was always scared of the creature because, even though he could outrun it since it had a limp, he at some point would have to sleep and then the mummy could catch him. Jimmy's response is that the mummy is in Cairo and doesn't have the money for a plane ticket. The fact that Jimmy counts William as his friend is interesting, since it presupposes that Jimmy isn't as smart as he thinks or that William isn't as out of it as he seems -- or both.

Their relationship is edited by Jay Rabinowitz with jump cuts and fades to suggest that the two spend entire days endlessly talking about nothing. But despite this, the friendship isn't really probed. Nor is William's illness. It isn't clear what he's suffering from, how he got that way, or why he needs MRI exams. Lorraine's character is developed even less, being limited to that of the put-upon love interest. Abril, though, is endearing and lovely in her American film debut, and Slater is gentle and goofy as the scruffy sidekick. Pesci is, as usual, insinuating, keen and razor-sharp, but again, as with The Public Eye and The Super, he fails to find a leading role that fits his distinct persona.

Levinson would have been better served if he had kept Jimmy raging, either as a pathetically struggling actor thrilled that the police are coming to question him because that will give him a chance to try out a new character, or as a bizarre Guardian Angel on a fervid mission of mercy in Hollywood -- the real Hollywood, not Hollywood's movie version of itself. What Levinson ends up with is a little of both, two sides that nearly cancel each other out. But when a character actor like Pesci plays a character like Jimmy, one who asks his girlfriend if, as a hood, he's as sympathetic as Brando was in On the Waterfront, then the answer, both on the screen and in the audience, has to be yes. Especially at the killer ending, when Levinson brings on a real-life movie star to offer his take on things. And it ain't Robin Williams.


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