Stories of wannabe artists hitting the big time in their chosen fields abound in cinema, possibly because for the people who actually make films, it's a universal story: every one of them is similarly striving for recognition and fame in a competitive field. But Art School Confidential aside, it's rare to see a movie about someone with no particular talent still achieving glory. To that end, Henry Jaglom's Hollywood Dreams is wickedly subversive, almost a satire of an industry that relies on deception. At the same time, it's a clunky, slack, directionless film that ultimately heads in a meaningful direction, but makes much of the route there seem unnecessary.
The bafflement starts with the opening scene, where star Tanna Frederick completely blows a stage audition; Jaglom films her in blurry, almost colorless digital video, making the visuals so ugly that it's hard to focus on her stressed-out hysteria and shameless begging. It's all appropriately naked and discomfiting, and it's a huge relief when Jaglom reverts to a more conventional visual style. From there, Frederick embarks on a series of whiny, high-strung little adventures that end when she's rescued from ignominy by gay producer Zack Norman, who pityingly ensconces her in his home alongside his partner and their other protégé, Justin Kirk. For career reasons, Kirk is pretending he's also gay, but apparently something in his clingy, insecure, sad-sack soul recognizes something in Frederick's manic, irrational one, and they start a squirmy romance that jeopardizes his future.
It's unclear whether Frederick is an awful actress or a tremendous one pretending to be awful, but either way, it's hard to pity her nasal, pushy, babyish Iowa girl, who battens onto any sympathetic figures and squeezes them for all she can get, readily recreating reality to reach her goals. (Norman even praises her lying, which he says is basically acting.) Still, she's mesmerizing, if only because her character is so damaged, so repellent, so inhumanly bizarre. The rest of the film around her—the flat characters, the odd dialogue, the padded plot progression—are all similarly off-center, but significantly less involving. It's no particular surprise that Jaglom's abrupt punchline centers on Frederick alone, briefly showing what's hidden under all her artificial veils. It's like he's looking at the entire film industry, and hating it, but recognizing its hypnotic power.