In Hollywood, once you’ve become a player, a member of the power-glam elite, you can afford to make a flop or two without tarnishing your reputation. A director has to screw up very, very badly — indeed, more than once — to get bounced out of the insiders’ club. Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner) screwed up about as badly as anyone can when he sprung Toys, his candy-colored fun-house fiasco, on Christmas audiences two years ago. Made for $40 million, this was no ordinary bad movie. It was the kind of stuporously wasteful white elephant that made you think a filmmaker had temporarily lost his mind.
Watching Jimmy Hollywood, Levinson’s first movie since Toys, I’m not sure his mind is entirely back, but his survival instincts certainly are. The story of a ”lovable” Tinseltown loser (Joe Pesci) who becomes a somebody by posing as a vigilante, this smugly plastic fable is the sort of movie that got pitched in the opening scene of The Player: It’s Marty meets Death Wish meets Turk 182! Is it bad? Very. Is it commercial? Probably not, but it sure looks commercial, and there, I suspect, lies its reason for being. Though Jimmy Hollywood is the first movie with Barry Levinson’s name on it that could have been made by an anonymous hack, the catch is that it’s a piece of intentional hackwork, a demonstration that Levinson, after Toys, can still play by the rules and churn out a marketable piece of low-concept trash.
When we first see Pesci’s Jimmy Alto, he’s strolling down the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, attempting to prove to his buddy, the blank, forgetful William (Christian Slater), that he has every star’s name memorized. A middle-aged nobody who worships Brando and fancies himself an unemployed actor (in truth, he has never acted a day in his life, though he was ”up for the role of Cliff” in Matlock), Jimmy is one of those movie-fixated sleazeball dreamers who help give Hollywood its desperate, ticky-tack flavor. This is the sort of moonstruck lowlife Robert Altman captured to perfection in The Long Goodbye, and it’s easy to imagine the loose, funky comedy the Levinson of Diner and Tin Men might have made of him. Instead, Jimmy never seems anything but a synthetic movie concoction. Pesci, an incendiary character actor, turns into a one-note chatterbox in leading roles. Hidden behind sunglasses and long blond hair, his Jimmy is such a charmless, abrasive whiner that sitting through this performance is like listening to someone play the kazoo for two hours.
Mad as hell when his car radio gets swiped, Jimmy ends up passing himself off — in dramatic, videotaped silhouette — as ”Jericho,” the revolutionary leader of an underground anticrime task force. And the movie, which begins as a grimy fable, becomes a popcorn demagogic fantasy, one so brainlessly overwrought it would have brought a blush to the cheeks of Paddy Chayefsky. It’s difficult to say what’s goofier: that ”Jericho,” after getting his measly little videotapes shown on the local TV news, turns into an L.A. folk hero; that Jimmy and William, donning dime-store masks, actually become fearless, gun-toting crime fighters; or that, in the midst of all this ersatz-populist mishegoss, we’re meant to be deeply moved by the notion that Jimmy has finally found (yes) the role of his life.
Has Barry Levinson been sitting in the sun for too long? Jimmy Hollywood bears all the marks of a director who has lost touch with his own humane gifts. The movie finishes off with one of those Blues Brothers-style windups in which dozens of police cars and onlookers gather to lie in wait for our hero. These endings are really about the self-importance of the pictures they climax — about the need to inflate a finale to the scale of a boffo hit. In Jimmy Hollywood, Levinson’s naked desire to deliver a hit is the only genuine emotion on screen. D