Doll & Em: London Review

Droll, female-centered made-for-TV miniseries about friendship and rivalry.

Channeling versions of their real-life selves, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells play a movie star and her best-friend assistant in a wry comedy that evokes "All About Eve."

Shown at the London Film Festival in one 124-minute go but intended to air on British cable channel Sky Living as a six-part miniseries in February 2014, Doll & Em is an astute, funny-sad study of friendship under pressure. Emily Mortimer stars as a character named Emily Mortimer, a successful British actor who -- like the real Emily Mortimer -- has starred in The Newsroom, Shutter Island and Match Point. Trying to help out a buddy recovering from a love-life crisis, Mortimer hires her best friend since childhood, Dolly Wells (played by her real best friend since childhood, Dolly Wells), to be her personal assistant for a shoot in California, only to find herself upstaged on-set and off by the newcomer, evoking shades of All About Eve (1950) and Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963).

Co-written by the two stars and the series’ director Azazel Jacobs (Terri, Momma's Man), Doll & Em has been acquired by HBO, where it will fit well alongside similar female-focused fare like Girls. Another reference point, also broadcast on HBO, would be Ricky Gervais’ series Extras, what with the film-set setting and the drip-feed of cameos from other well-known stars playing versions of themselves, such as, in the case of this show, Susan Sarandon, John Cusack, Ben Chaplin and Andy Garcia.

Those names will surely help Doll & Em draw viewers initially, but they’ll stay for the show’s canny depiction of the subtle power games played out in feminine friendships, especially those little jabs of passive-aggressive sniping disguised as compliments and the way acts of generosity can poison friendships. Although the tone is largely comic, complete with pratfalls and zingers, there’s a bittersweet undertow, particularly in the later stages, that ups the emotional stakes satisfyingly.

The first episode economically lays out the core conceit as we see waitress Dolly in London splitting up with her longtime boyfriend Tom. In tears and looking for sympathy, she calls her bestie, Emily, who at that precise moment is in the middle of being interviewed alongside Bradley Cooper at the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony. Emily suggests Dolly come out to California to be her PA while she shoots a film, and Dolly eagerly agrees.

They set up home together in a rented house in the hills, and Emily quickly makes it clear that she expects Dolly to still be her best friend, but also her assistant whose job it is to fetch the ice cream, make sure the lattes are made just the way Emily likes them, and drive her to set in the morning even though Dolly can barely handle the rough and tumble of Los Angeles traffic. (Emily alludes to her husband and kids back in New York, but while her real-life spouse Alessandro Nivola takes a producer’s credit on the show, when the husband character shows up onscreen he’s played by someone else entirely.)

By the second episode, the worm is starting to turn. At a party held at the swanky home of producer Buddy (the delicious Jonathan Cake), Dolly is at first relegated to the role of babysitter for Susan Sarandon’s young son and manages to reduce the child to a puddle of tears by pretending to be a shark. But by the end of the party, she’s smoking a blunt with Sarandon, and on course to sleep with Buddy, a plan Emily almost foils during a drunken hot-tub session that gets out of control.

As the series progresses, Dolly becomes ever more popular with the cast and crew on set while Emily’s confidence slowly erodes, damaging her leading performance in the movie that precious-minded director Mike (Aaron Himelstein) insists is not “a female version of The Godfather” even though that’s what everyone describes it as.

The series’ real director, Azazel Jacobs, has some form already with tricksy film-within-film malarkey off the back of Nobody Needs to Know, but he, with assistance from Mortimer and Wells, manages to fashion here a credibly realist portrait of on-set tensions and camaraderie that’s the right mix of spiky and affectionate. Semi-improvised throughout, Doll & Em has a lovely loosey-goosey stride that just manages to disguise its taut overall structure, one that builds to a satisfying conclusion back in London. The lead actresses have a can't-be-faked electric chemistry together, and while it’s no surprise that the ever reliable Mortimer exudes ditsy charm as always, the less familiar Wells (best known in the U.K. for TV series The Mighty Boosh) turns the series, echoing the plot, into her own personal calling card.

During the Q&A session at the premiere screening for the London festival, the actresses quoted with amusement a French journalist’s sight-unseen description of the show’s self-reflexive MO as “walking that fine line between narcissism and self-indulgence.” No doubt some viewers will feel the same, but many more will admire the audacious way Mortimer, Wells et al. riff on their own personas to explore aspects of fame and celebrity. It’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the show’s executive producers is Andrew Eaton from Revolution Films, the outfit that made the very similar meta-fictions Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip, which both starred Steve Coogan as a semi-dislikable version of himself. Maybe he’ll show up in the next season if the series gets recommissioned, although Doll & Em feels entirely self-sufficient as a standalone six-parter that would work just as well in other territories as one long film.

Production: King Bee in association with Revolution Films

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Dolly Wells, Jonathan Cake, Aaron HimelsteinProducer: Alessandro Nivola

Director: Azazel Jacobs

Executive producers: Andrew Eaton, Lucy Lumsden

Cinematographer: Tobias Datum

Production Designer: Caroline Foellmer

Editor: Darrin Navarro

Unrated, 124 minutes