Queen of the Lot -- Film Review

Henry Jaglom again tries to mix comedy with melodrama with decidedly mixed results.

Henry Jaglom films are like family affairs, with friends and relatives dropping by and everyone getting a moment in the spotlight.

The writer-director usually casts actor and director pals, girlfriends past and present and a few faces from old Hollywood, while his actor-daughter and brother invariably turn up.

He tends to shoot in friends' homes around Los Angeles, where the familial comfort zone encourages an improvisational approach to scenes. These never reach the artistic intensity of a John Cassavetes or Robert Altman film; Jaglom's films are too benign, too cozy with its actor-personalities to explore any real dark side to their psyches.

Jaglom films play best inside L.A. city limits, and his latest, Queen of the Lot, is no exception. While all his films can be regarded as a continuing exploration of his show bizzy world, Queen is his first actual sequel. It resumes a story begun three years ago in Hollywood Dreams about a fresh-off-the-farm ingenue from Iowa, Margie Chizek, played by Jaglom's latest discovery and companion, Tanna Frederick. Only now her stage name is Maggie Chase, and in the intervening three years she has become something of a minor celebrity.

The film drops hints that Jaglom sees Maggie/Margie as the face of today's show business. Her sudden fame and jump in "Google points" online are due less to starring roles as a kick-ass martial-arts heroine than a series of bad-girl stunts. She acquired two DUIs within two week and is dating a married, gambling-addicted movie star (Christopher Rydell). The paparazzi won't leave her alone.

Not that she wants them to. She lives for those Google points. And now she's figured it out: "You get no (press) coverage until you do something really bad."

Here then is the kernel of an idea about the new Hollywood worth exploring by a guy inside its inner circle, through his friendships with half of the town's actors and directors, but also an outsider thanks to his fiercely independent filmmaking. Alas, the kernel gets lost in a meandering screenplay with too many characters with little to do.

The film starts out as a gentle Hollywood satire, shifts abruptly into a comedy of (bad) manners, turns into a crime story and deviates into a suicide attempt before it reverts to a Hollywood satire with a happy ending. No Hollywood satire should ever have a happy ending. More invention went into creating unnecessary roles for Jaglom's "family" than into a focused narrative.

At the beginning, Maggie is under house arrest with an electronic ankle bracelet thanks to those drunk-driving arrests. It's an odd house arrest, however, as she has no problem leaving home to move into the Hollywood Hills home of the gay producers (Zack Norman, David Proval) from the earlier film. A team of handlers settles in, including a "life coach" (Diane Salinger), a publicist of sorts (Ron Vignone, the film's editor) and other hangers-on, along with her boyfriend.

The scene then shifts to the Beverly Hills estate of the boyfriend's parents. These are Hollywood royalty, played by Mary Crosby and Jack Heller, with an entourage consisting of a nervous accountant (Dennis Christopher), the boyfriend's black-sheep brother (Noah Wyle), a younger sister (Sabrina Jaglom) and a morose and unemployed movie director (Peter Bogdanovich and, no, there will be no wisecracks).

The film now dips into territory explored long ago in Kaufman and Ferber's '20s-era parody of the Barrymore family, The Royal Family, where everyone has dramatic entrances and exits, bankruptcy and other scandals threaten and the movie director throws a fit about doing a proposed remake of Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise.

Understandably, the movie loses the narrative thread about little Maggie. She is allowed to fall in love with the black-sheep brother and have one of the more grating scenes in recent memory where she chews and spits out ice cream and cookies in the kitchen while discussing career options with the brother.

Queen is Frederick's third starring role in a Jaglom film, which does not include her lead in his play, Just 45 Minutes From Broadway, or its recently completed screen version. All these roles are showcases that express Jaglom's fascination with the redhead's bubbly charm, a fascination not all audience members will share. She does have vivaciousness on camera but struggles to suggest anything deeper in her characters. Jaglom also makes a huge mistake in showing a clip from one of Maggie's action films, which can only be described as embarrassing.

Since he makes movies mostly for indulgent devotees and aspiring actors, Jaglom can get away with mistakes like this as well as a casual filmmaking style. Sound levels drop. A handheld camera wanders here and there. A scene might improve with another take, but no one bothers. Inevitably, his films look like they were more fun to make than to watch.

Opens: Nov. 19 in Southern California (Rainbow Releasing)
Cast: Tanna Frederick, Noah Wyle, Christopher Rydell, Paul Sand, David Proval, Zack Norman, Kathryn Crosby, Mary Crosby, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Christopher, Jack Heller
Director-screenwriter: Henry Jaglom
Producer: Rosemary Marks
Director of photography: Hanania Baer
Music: Harriet Schock
Costume designer: Cynthia Obsenares
Editor: Ron Vignone
Rated R, 118 minutes