An L.A. Minute: The Celebrity’s Apprentice, by Rita Cannon
In its own publicity materials, Daniel Adams’ incoherent comedy An L.A. Minute bills itself as “a satirical look at fame, success, the star-making machinery and the karma that attaches to all those who worship at the altar of Celebrity.” Those are some big, juicy targets for a satire to take aim at, particularly right now. But when a piece of art calls itself satire, it’s essentially setting out to accomplish two things: making some kind of meaningful observation about the sins and shortcomings of its subject, and presenting those observations in a way that makes us laugh. An L.A. Minute fails to do either, or even to present characters, a setting, or a plot that make any real sense.
Gabriel Byrne stars as Ted Gold, a best-selling novelist who used to write poignant memoirs about his own life but shifted decades ago to writing trashy airport crime novels (his latest is about a homeless serial killer and bears the titled Kinky Corpses) and became obscenely wealthy as a result. He lives in a Malibu mansion, surrounded by shallow people who worship wealth and fame, among them his sleazy agent, his clearly emotionally detached trophy wife, and his sycophantic publicist, with whom he’s been cheating on his wife for years. One night, he runs into a young woman who calls herself Velocity (Kiersey Clemons). Velocity is standing in front of an ATM, dressed in what looks like a “sexy nun” Halloween costume, asking for donations and berating ATM users for lending their money to a corporate behemoth that finances American imperialism and war crimes. Velocity, it turns out, is a performance artist. Ted is blown away by the brash honesty and artistic courage of this display, despite the fact that we in the audience can tell her performance is boring, smug and sort of stupid. Ted tags along with Velocity on a whirlwind tour of the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, accompanied by Velocity’s friend Karen, who works as a dominatrix. We know this because she wears the same black leather corset for the whole movie (even though it takes place over several days) and literally never talks about anything else.
In an attempt to champion artistic integrity and bring meaning back to his life, Ted takes Velocity with him on a scheduled talk show appearance, determined to give her a bigger platform and make her a star. She takes full advantage by flashing her bare breasts on camera while delivering a screed about how society makes us wear costumes and performance art is all about baring the truth, man. As a result, she becomes an overnight viral sensation with a packed schedule of TV appearances and general meetings. But once she’s the talk of the town, Velocity quickly shows her true colors: she loves being a star and is determined to remain one, even if it means selling out her artistic ideals.
The question of whether An L.A. Minute wants us to think Velocity’s performance art is actually good is tough to answer. Even after she’s revealed to be as venal and materialistic as anyone else, Ted and other characters earnestly refer to her earlier performances as “profound.” Is Velocity to be condemned because she was cynically producing bad work from the very beginning or because she has the potential for genius and abandons it for fame? The movie doesn’t make it clear, but sitting through the uninspired performance sequences becomes especially tiresome if we’re supposed to think it’s the latter.
A handful of subplots tumble around the movie in a similarly confusing way, introducing themselves and then vanishing without making a good case that we should care about any of them. These include a failed attempt by Ted’s wife to cheat on him with a male escort, an excruciatingly unfunny sequence in which Ted is mugged by a legless man in a wheelchair and his blind accomplice, and even a vain attempt at heartstring-tugging when Ted and Velocity spend a night in a homeless encampment and are awakened to the harsh truths of life in the “real” Los Angeles. Homeless people figure very heavily into this movie, but only as props that serve to teach Ted something important and are then dispensed with.
An L.A. Minute explicitly takes integrity—the word comes up in dialogue at least a dozen times—as its theme but abandons integrity completely in its depiction of Los Angeles as a place. On one hand, it constantly name drops real restaurants, stores, and night spots that will be familiar to Angelenos (particularly rich ones). It depicts barely disguised versions of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (here the Upright People’s Brigade) and the Jerry Springer Show. On the other hand, the functions these places serve in the script have nothing to do with their real life counterparts. Velocity’s self-serious performance art would feel out of place at UCB, and a novelist of Ted’s apparent stature would never appear on a show like Jerry Springer. So why bother to imitate them at all? The quasi-reality of its setting only makes its cardboard characters and broad comic set pieces feel more jarring. This isn’t a surreally exaggerated vision of a city’s real qualities, like the Oakland of Sorry to Bother You, or even a blithe pageant of knowing stereotypes, like John Waters’ Baltimore. It’s just sloppy storytelling.
All of which leads to the question: What are Gabriel Byrne and Kiersey Clemons, two undeniably good actors who are both a on a bit of a hot streak, doing in this movie? Oddly enough, the closest thing the movie has to a breakout performance actually comes from Brianna Baker as Karen the dominatrix, who has real presence and comic timing that shine through the totally flat role she’s been given (plus she looks great in a blunt bob wig). Byrne and Clemons, on the other hand, seem mentally checked out for much of their screen time, which I find it hard to blame them for.
Even if you can forgive a satire for not being funny (and I don’t know that you should), at the very least it needs to have a perspective and make a good argument for it. We live in a time when a reality star/professional douchebag has ascended to the presidency and, perhaps even more distressingly, when a revolving door of plainly amoral opportunists (this week: Omarosa!) get to seem briefly heroic by momentarily positioning themselves as opponents to his reign as The Very Worst Person. In this environment, An L.A. Minute’s obvious moral — that fame is fleeting, noxious, and often indifferent to moral or aesthetic value — should be a slam dunk. It’s actually kind of incredible that they’ve managed to make a movie so nonsensical it can’t even convince us of something we already know is true.