A slew of elderly-but-lively showbiz troupers illuminate Sunset Over Mulholland Drive, a frustratingly fussy documentary about a unique Los Angeles retirement home. Director/co-writer Uli Gaulke — who competed at Sundance in 2006 with an earlier movie-themed documentary, Comrades in Dreams — has found a rich seam of material, but the finished product doesn’t always display the gems to their best effect.
A German production with dialogue entirely in English, it bowed in March at SXSW ahead of a limited art house release at home in May (blandly retitled Sunset Over Hollywood) and has sufficient charm to warrant similar play in other territories where seniors enjoy inspirational celebrations of their peers. Non-fiction-oriented festivals may also want to take a look, ahead of later small-screen exposure.
Founded in 1942, the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital is an offshoot of the Motion Picture & Television Fund, a charitable organization set up in the silent-movie days by industry luminaries (including Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin) concerned about their less-fortunate colleagues suffering poverty in retirement. The roll call of previous Country House residents is a veritable who’s who of Hollywood — to name just a few, Hattie McDaniel, Joel McCrea, Ida Lupino, Mack Sennett, Mary Astor and Bud Abbott — many of whom saw out their final days in this leafy facility at the end of Mulholland Drive in Woodland Hills.
Gaulke, however, elects to focus on individuals who were never household names, but who nevertheless compiled notable filmographies on either side of the camera. Around a dozen or so main reminiscence-prone protagonists share the limelight, including long-married, affectionately bickering couple Joel and Deborah Rogosin and Daniel Selznick, producer son of David O. Selznick. But, as Gaulke correctly divines, it’s Connie Sawyer — 103 at the time of filming in 2016, and who died two years later — who emerges as the first among equals.
Sawyer is a sparkling, down-to-earth raconteur who proves glorious company. As glimpsed in brief clips interpolated here, she enjoyed fleeting but memorable speaking roles in high-profile productions such as Out of Sight (whose star George Clooney is a prominent Fund supporter), When Harry Met Sally… and Dumb and Dumber over her six-decade career.
As recently as 2014, Sawyer appeared on two episodes of Showtime’s Ray Donovan; the actress, like many of her Country House neighbors, was in effect actually only semi-retired. As the film makes plain, the showbiz bug is a lifelong affliction, and most of the producers and writers we see are still optimistically working on various projects. The Country House offers a weekly creative-writing group, which takes up a considerable amount of editor Andrew Bird’s run-time, including sessions devoted to fanciful, comical speculations about a possible, decidedly belated sequel to Casablanca.
Long before these sequences, Gaulke begins the film with a disorienting montage including faked-up footage from this hypothetical Casablanca redux. It’s a typically clumsy touch from a doc which doesn’t seem to have sufficient confidence in the strength of its material. There are too many gimmicky little distractions along the way, including an inexplicable decision to (fractionally but noticeably) speed up the frame-rate of archival extracts. Enigmatic sequences in which a vintage car drives through nocturnal city streets with film clips being projected onto its windows do manage to add a poetic, offbeat touch to the proceedings.
Gaulke and company could perhaps instead have offered further background information about the Country House and the Fund and how it operates — without delving into Frederick Wiseman-esque administrative minutiae — and/or sought a more balanced depiction of what comes across as an idyllic retreat. As it is, the widescreen-shot Sunset Over Mulholland Drive sometimes veers uncomfortably close to being an extended advertisement for the facility, complete with perky, quirky, near-incessant music by composer Mark Orton.
Any rancor among the residents is distinctly downplayed, and there’s hardly anything about the tough realities — those inevitable infirmities and indignities — experienced by those nearing the very end of long, productive lives. There’s a certain degree of sugar-coating here: Sunset Boulevard may actually be only a few minutes away, but we’re a million miles from Sunset Blvd. That said, taken on its own limited terms, the film is a passably pleasant affair, primarily of interest as a chance to spend some quality time with folks that anyone would love to have as a grandparent.
Production companies: achtung panda! Media, Fruitmarket Arts & Media, Storming Donkey Productions
Director: Uli Gaulke
Screenwriters: Uli Gaulke, Marc Petzke
Producers: Helge Albers, Arne Birkenstock
Cinematographer: Axel Schneppat
Editor: Andrew Bird
Composer: Mark Orton
Sales: Global Screen, Munich