The Over-Overstuffed Sandwich
Like criminals, screenwriters can be a superstitious and cowardly lot. Can you blame them? They’re trying to break into an industry that has very few clear guidelines on how to do so, constantly shifting professional requirements, and an almost sociopathic sense of entitlement. It is, and I am not exaggerating, easier to get into the NFL than it is to become a professional screenwriter.
Let’s say, against all odds, a screenwriter makes it. They a) sell a script and b) the check clears. It’s all peaches and cream from there, no? No, because the indignities just get worse. They can be forced into endless rewrites, often without pay. The guts of their story can be arbitrarily ripped out by airheaded stars and pitiless producers. They can be fired from their own project, then develop a reputation for being “difficult” if they express dismay.*
The vile frosting on top of that cake of paranoia is the fear of theft. Newbie screenwriters often live in fear that their script will be stolen by some unscrupulous scumbag, despite the fact that this almost never happens.** The idea of a disgruntled screenwriter seeking revenge against Hollywood isn’t a bad one for a film, but the new surreal crime comedy Dreaming Hollywood is too unfocused to see the premise through.
Like many people who yearn to be creatives, Ray Balfi (Turk Matthews) has a dream. He thinks he has a million-dollar idea, one that would be a perfect screenplay. His script is The Dog’s Meow, a (potentially) sweet-natured animated story about a dog infiltrating the ranks of cats and learning the value of brotherhood.
Ray’s plan is to send one hundred copies of his screenplay out to assorted producers, agents, and executives. Surely someone will recognize his genius and reward him with a giant check! The smart move would be for Ray to learn the craft of writing and get to work on his next script, yet Ray has a big bushel of problems to deal with first.
One problem is Ray’s job. He’s a low-level drug dealer who’s in just deep enough that dangerous people know who he is. Another problem is Maureen (Madelyn Allen), a prostitute with whom Ray is infatuated and who radiates seething contempt toward him. Yet another problem is Ray’s childlike point of view and inability to protect his screenplay.
On top of all that are…well, even more problems! Such as:
- Rudy Aquanikkio (Eliot), a quasi-drug kingpin with a profound love for music.
- Detectives Duque (Link Ruiz) and Potts (Thomas F. Evans), a pair of corrupt cops working with and against the dealers.
- Charlotte (Yilin Wang) and Shawnathan (Brian Hanford), a pair of conniving underlings in the movie business looking to overthrow their boss.
After reading the last few paragraphs, you might think that a) Dreaming Hollywood is needlessly convoluted and b) that the disparate plot threads never come together to compliment each other. Here’s the thing about that…Dreaming Hollywood isn’t a good movie and that’s not due to ineptitude or inattention. Director Frank Martinez has made what feels like a dingy, meth-fuelled cartoon. Characters drift through endlessly grimy locations, confronted by casual cruelty, violence, and impromptu musical numbers. Martinez seems to be going for a vibe that feels like a combination of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the surrealism of the Coen Brothers and David Lynch. There are a couple of serious flaws with that approach.
The first is that, at ninety minutes, it would make for a fun and interesting oddity. At a little over two hours, it’s punishing. Martinez’s sluggish pacing made the film feel endless, and he desperately needed to cut a good half hour to trim up the run time. Second…remember the old quote about obscenity by Potter Stewart, where he said “I know it when I see it?” I ordinarily hate surrealism in films. When I’m in the hands of David Lynch and there’s a strange time jump in his film Lost Highway, or when the Coens introduce a baffling UFO sighting in The Man Who Wasn’t There, I might not understand the symbolism but I know that the filmmakers have carefully considered it. Martinez packs in so much weird imagery that I frequently didn’t know what he was trying to say beyond, “Isn’t this messed up?”
Martinez also wrote the script, and on the one hand, I give him credit for sticking with the same theme throughout the various subplots. Every character, whether it’s the psychotic kingpin Rudy, the rage-fuelled cop Duque, or even the simple Ray, all want to move up the ladder and are all absolutely convinced they need to do one thing to gain fame and riches. While it’s a timely and relevant concept, the storylines never feel like they compliment each other. Instead, it feels like Martinez has jammed ideas for several movies into one movie. As a result, the script meanders, often forgetting that Ray is the main character. It lingers for long periods of time on supporting characters and forgets that their job is to support the main character. I appreciate that Martinez wanted to flesh out this cavalcade of weirdos. He needed to achieve a better sense of balance between them.
As an independent film in the truest sense of the word, the cast is not entirely polished. Having said that, there are some strong and highly amusing performances. As Ray, Turk Matthews takes what could be a one-note role and provides some interesting layers. Flashbacks offer glimpses of Ray’s awful childhood, and Matthews allows the rage to slowly bubble until it needs to explode. I particularly liked the quietly weird performance by Thomas F. Evans as detective Potts. He takes your standard-issue hardboiled cop and adds a few truly strange moments, yet never calls attention to them. Every time Evans is on-screen, he would say or do something that would make me say, “Wait, did he just…?”
The people in Dreaming Hollywood are trapped. Their world is filthy, cruel, and irrational. They know it and they all feel like they have one chance to escape. Frank Martinez has made a film that’s hallucinatory, unpleasant, and occasionally funny. With a stronger degree of focus and a greater willingness to kill his darlings, he could make something significant in the future.
*You will not be surprised to learn that screenwriters who are women and POC often get hit with the “difficult” brush due to normal behavior, whereas straight white men get to pull a Patrick Bateman and are rewarded with second chances. And third chances. And so on.
**It’s cheaper for a producer to just buy the rights to a script than it is to hire a lawyer to defend themselves in a lawsuit.