Luck, or the lack thereof, has long been a consistent motif in that subgenre of films-about-Hollywood, from early comedies like Sherlock Jr and Merton of the Movies to studio-era dramas The Star and In a Lonely Place to modern films like Mulholland Dr and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It takes no small bit of luck to thrive, no less survive, in an industry where trends are fleeting and financiers fickle. And luck, or the lack thereof, is one of the main themes in the delightfully wry, gentle comedy Hollywood Fringe, new this week to digital and VOD from filmmakers Wyatt McDill and Megan Huber.
Hollywood Fringe is not technically about the similarly-named Hollywood Fringe Festival, but some of its scenes take place in that festival’s famous community-based pop-up performance milieu. More broadly, though, the film takes its title seriously: its characters are at the periphery of the business, not its perceived center. Married couple Samantha (Jennifer Prediger) and Travis (Justin Kirk) collaborate on pitching and producing projects in the film and television industry. But success seems elusive for the two, both writers and actors, fortysomethings who left Minneapolis for Hollywood and are struggling to maintain a semblance of artistic integrity while pitching their projects.
One of those projects is “Rainbow Farm,” which, though it is ten years without progress, earns them some interest, even though the suits seem quick to rewrite its plot and characters into something radically different from their intention. The idealistic “Rainbow Farm” helps characterize Samantha and Travis as earnest if naïve transplants from the Midwest (like Merton of the Movies and A Star Is Born’s Esther Blodgett). It’s a “super-idealistic” work from their past. Samantha wonders about their art:
We’re not here to make art or improvements for the world or something we can be proud of, are we?
But then she realizes what films-about-Hollywood have nearly always concluded in their ongoing conflict between art and commerce:
We’re in this to make money.
That notion of the pitch is one mined for gold in Wilder’s Sunset BLVD and Altman’s The Player, and the scenes with Samantha and Travis trying to maintain some control over their project show just how frustrating and humiliating that process can be. Worse, the producers are willing to cast Travis but not Samantha, instead favoring a younger actress for her role. Like in The Star, Sunset BLVD, Play It As It Lays, and so many other Hollywood fictions, Hollywood is brutally ageist.
Increasingly worried about her career—and concerned Travis might be having an affair with his co-star—Samantha turns to her archive to resurrect another idea, from her past, “The Alien Play”. It’s a radical, experimental work of performance art. And here’s where most of Hollywood Fringe’s delightful physical comedy ensues. Samantha enlists a troupe of actors to join her in a set of rehearsals that give the supporting cast an opportunity to wreak some simple laughs from comic props and gags, but the group also displays some real heart and thought when discussing matters of race, gender, and privilege.
And as Samantha, Jennifer Prediger sells the early-midlife crisis well. Turning forty, having left behind a home and friends, she’s constantly questioning and evaluating her life decisions. Prediger’s wry expressions and pent-up frustrations feel convincingly real for a woman who struggles to be taken seriously in a town where image and glitz matter more than hearts and minds. But she is down on her luck: her pitches are flailing, she can’t get cast in her own project, and her husband may be having an affair with a younger woman. She needs a bit of luck. Especially in a town ruled by ageism and sexism.
Aside from luck, one other theme explored in Hollywood Fringe is the tension between illusion and reality. That too has been a trope of films-about-Hollywood since their inception. Several scenes in Hollywood Fringe reveal themselves to be performances by Samantha and Travis in an experimental performance—à la the Hollywood Fringe Festival—about their own struggles. Clearly, producer-director Huber and writer-director McDill hope to keep viewers guessing, especially in the early stages, about what is real and what is less so. It’s a neat narrative trick—punctuated with a comic melodica—that casts even more doubt on whether or not Samantha can realize her goals.
But this is Tinseltown, known more for the business than the show, and that aspect of Hollywood—the one illustrated in The Bad and The Beautiful, The Stand-In, and Hail! Caesar, among others—is one Hollywood Fringe understands all too well. They called it “The Dream Factory” after all, suggesting the industry is just that, one that traffics in art but is not bound to it. Hollywood Fringe is all about the luck one needs to make sense of life—and love—in an industry that churns out product and grinds up the people who make it.
Like Samantha and Travis, the team of Huber and McDill are Minnesota transplants. Their self-run company, Sleeper Cell Productions, specializes in films that dare to experiment: their recent 3 Day Weekend blurs genres and defies narrative conventions, and similarly, Hollywood Fringe works to deconstruct tropes familiar to the Hollywood film.
Hollywood Fringe premiered at Dances with Films and screened as part of the Cinequest and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festivals, winning audience awards at both. Comedy Dynamics will release the film on digital and VOD on January 25, 2022.