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Friday, Sept. 24, 1999


So you wanna be in art pictures?

The last film by director Tom DiCillo (former camerman for Jim Jarmusch), "Living in Oblivion," was a clever insider's look at the maddening process of directing a low-budget independent film. Obviously based on first-hand experience, the film derived a lot of laughs from its protagonist's not-always-successful attempts to navigate the minefield of raging egos that made up his cast and crew.

DiCillo's back with a new one, "The Real Blonde," but it just as easily could have been called "Living in Obscurity," as it takes a similar inside look, this time at struggling New York actors, their insecurities, and the compromises and indignities they face in making it in the biz.

This scenario is a bit similar to Doug Liman's excellent "Swingers," but where that film focused on young, brash talents waiting to get their big break, DiCillo focuses on a guy having a major thirtysomething crisis, suspecting the time for his break has already passed.

That guy is Joe (Matthew Modine), an underemployed actor who's ineptly waiting tables in Manhattan and resenting it, especially when it's his successful friends from back in the day sitting at those same tables. Joe vents a lot of his frustration on his live-in girlfriend Mary (Catherine Keener), a makeup artist with a more pragmatic nature. Needless to say, this doesn't help their sex life, which seems to be in a state of perpetual coitus interruptus.

Joe shares his miseries with fellow actor/waiter Bob (Maxwell Caulfield), a real slimeball who's constantly pursuing his quest to bed a "real blonde," fed up with all the bottle blondes out there. (Life is rough when you're an actor.)

When Bob lands a high-paying part on a TV soap opera, Joe -- Mr. Holier-Than-Thou -- insists "that's not acting." Acting, as he would have it, is exemplified by his audition monologue, a bitter diatribe from "Death of a Salesman." This is not the sort of thing to pull on a busy casting agent, but Joe does so anyway.

Said casting agent, Dee Dee (Kathleen Turner), doesn't have time for showboating, telling Joe bluntly: "This is a business. If you don't understand that, then go away."

Joe swallows some small portion of his pride, and agrees to audition for a Madonna video. When he receives a message on his answering machine from the Material Girl herself, Joe's imagination and ego run wild with dreams of success. But as his relationship with Mary deteriorates (He: "Why does it always come down to money with you?" She: "Because you don't have any!"), it's make-or-break time for Joe.

DiCillo takes an interesting stance toward his hero, Joe, one that's finely balanced between sympathy and ridicule. On the one hand, you feel for the guy and his idealistic intentions, but on the other, you can't help but think "lighten up, dude." His integrity leads him to cut off all possible career avenues, and serves as an excuse for turning into a bitter crank.

Joe needs to realize the obvious: As New York poet Don Bajema once put it, "The world will never be what you want it to be."

While DiCillo has a good character to work with in Joe, his jokey sub-plot involving Bob and his blondes is a near-total waste of time. Bob's inclusion as a critique of the shallow, sell-out side of the industry is hardly incisive, as he's such a two-dimensional creation. Worse still, the humor here is feeble, which makes one wonder whether the business of "entertainment" may be more complex than cranks like Joe or rebellious film directors like DiCillo suspect.

"Doesn't it seem like everybody's getting stupider and stupider?" is the film's big question, and judging from what's on offer, DiCillo would seem to be saying "yes!" (especially when his hero's triumph is posited as landing a role in a Hollywood flick as "a very sexy serial killer"). Far be it from this critic to disagree, but for a critique to be effective, it's got to hoist its demons on their own petard. See "The Player" for how it's done.

Anyhow, in a year in which "pure art vs. commercial success" is a theme being examined in a multitude of films -- from "High Art" to the forthcoming "Pecker" and "Henry Fool" -- "The Real Blonde" pales in comparison.

"The Real Blonde" is playing at Cine Vivant Roppongi.

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