Friday, December 27, 2013

Hollywood Seagull: From Russia to Malibu

Hollywood and a high culture do not necessarily go together, but jealousy and disillusionment are embedded in the town’s very fiber.  Considering its central conflicts, resetting Chekhov’s great tragedy in a Malibu beach estate makes a certain amount of sense.  There is even an important Russian connection for Michael Guinzburg’s Hollywood Seagull (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Bruce Sorenson (Sorin) is a retired jurist who maintains a palatial Malibu beach house, but pines for the New York of his early years. He lives with his grandson Travis Del Mar (Treplyov), who hopes to win his mother’s approval with his avant-garde short films. Instead, Irene Del Mar (Irina) belittles her son at every turn, saving her affection for Barry Allen Trigger (Trigorin), a blockbuster screenwriter, who has yet to write a part for her.  She does not think much of her son’s new lover, Nina Danilov, either.  However, the aspiring Russian actress certainly turns Trigger’s head.

Obviously, the mutual attraction shared by Danilov and Trigger will further destabilize the already dysfunctional household.  Love will be mismatched and unrequited for nearly everyone, including the loyal live-in servants and Dr. Dorn, a longtime family friend (now a breast implant specialist in Guinzburg’s Hollywoodized version).

As viewers already know (or can guess from other Chekhov plays), there is not a lot of happiness in store for any of these characters.  In fact, Guinzburg matches the original pretty closely, even forcing in the business with the misfortunate water fowl. In truth, it works better than one might expect.  It is hard to define precisely, but there is a somewhat nostalgic vibe to the film, sort of like recent vintage Harry Jaglom films, but without the Jaglom excesses.  The mood is also nicely enhanced by the distinctive score composed by Evgeny Shchukin (with additional contributions from Doug White), consisting of light classical strings and elegant piano-and-vibes jazz interludes.

However, Guinzburg’s real ace in the hole is William “Biff” McGuire as grandfather Sorenson.  He perfectly expresses the former judge’s world weariness and his spark of wit.  He’s the guy you want to sit next to at a dinner party.  The Hollywood Seagull team seems to consider him their Oscar contender, which makes sense.  McGuire is clearly a long shot, but as an industry veteran (primarily television) going back to the days of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he would be a great story should he somehow get the nod.

Viewers might not recognize their names, but the rest of the ensemble does not lack for credits either (albeit of the “small screen” variety).  Sal Viscuso is another case in point.  The onetime Soap co-star (as Father Timothy Flotsky) finds the perfect tone of Chekhovian resignation for Dr. Dorn.  Barbara Williams is also razor sharp as the wince-inducing Irene Del Mar, while Lara Romanoff is certainly convincing as Danilov, the Russian starlet forced to do reality TV because she cannot soften her accent.  However, her scenes with her various romantic prospects are rather overcooked.

Still, Hollywood Seagull is a refreshingly stylish and literate production, anchored by McGuire’s wise and wistful turn. Frankly, it deserves more attention than August: Osage County, a film not so thematically dissimilar. Recommended for those who appreciate the source material and its Tinseltown trappings, Hollywood Seagull opens today (12/27) in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent, just in time for Oscar consideration.