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‘Jimmy Hollywood’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 30, 1994

After the bankrupt "Toys," director Barry Levinson could have filed for the artistic equivalent of Chapter 11. With his reputation entirely liquidated, he had nowhere to go but up.

"Jimmy Hollywood," his first film since The Disaster, surges into the black for about 45 minutes. A comic allegory about making it big in Tinseltown, it stars dynamo Joe Pesci and is initially charged with the kind of chummy banter that graced Levinson's early work ("Diner" and "Tin Men").

But just when it seems safe to step into a Levinson movie again, "Jimmy Hollywood" goes under. After introducing the wonderfully nutty Jimmy Alto (Pesci), his eccentric, likable Spanish girlfriend (Victoria Abril) and his addled pal (Christian Slater), Levinson leads them into a misbegotten vigilante caper, with shopworn forebodings about Hollywood, society's obsession with fame, and crime on Main Street U.S.A. The movie increasingly suggests a dream-factory version of "Falling Down."

Alto, a fast-talking troll in shades, short pants and a bizarre blond hairdo, has left the aluminum siding trade in New Jersey to act in Hollywood. Living with Lorraine (Abril), a sweet-natured hairdresser, he works single-mindedly toward his dream. He pores over the trade papers for auditions and studies classic movies on the tube. He's even bought himself a vanity billboard on a bus stop bench.

Hollywood, Alto has swiftly discovered, is just a state of mind. The streets are full of hookers, drug dealers and muggers. He's not getting any parts, either, although he claims to have done a "helluva reading" for a role in the TV series "Matlock." He was rejected for the show, he claims, because "I think they felt I was a little too strong for Andy Griffith."

Angered by an attempted mugging of Lorraine, as well as the theft of his car stereo, Alto persuades sidekick William (Slater) to take a video camera out to the streets and conduct a stakeout. They catch a thief, truss him up and deposit him in front of the Hollywood police station, the incriminating videotape taped to his back. They also affix a message to the cops, telling them to catch some criminals -- or hear again from the "S.O.S."

When the news channels get hold of the story, they transform this citizen's arrest into the work of a mysterious vigilante group -- the S.O.S. Alto sniffs a double opportunity: to clean up the streets and have the role of his life.

Even during its best moments, "Jimmy Hollywood" is always a moment away from falling apart. What, for instance, does attractive, hard-working Lorraine see in a guy who looks like Tracey Ullman's evil twin? Buoyed by their notoriety, Alto and William launch a massive campaign to nab more hoods. The criminals pile up in front of the cop shop. But with Alto and William out of work, how do they finance themselves? And given the number of "Candid Camera"-style captures they make, why does no one ever see them?

At the beginning of the film, Pesci is a bundle of delight. Frustrated with waiting tables (a job he's soon to lose), he blows the powdered sugar from a plate of French toast -- right into an obnoxious customer's face. When another customer complains his fried eggs should have been scrambled, Alto sticks his fingers into the yolks and churns them into a yellow mess.

But as he becomes messianically engrossed in his mission, Alto is less believable -- a contrivance of Levinson's rather than a true character. "It's a great role, Lorraine," he tells his girlfriend with silly grandiosity, completely ignoring her protestations. Toward the end, Alto's self-righteous obsession becomes so speechifyingly tiresome, the audience may find itself rooting for the forces of law and order -- just to shut him up.

As shiftless William, suffering chronic memory lapse after an accident, Slater also has his moments. It is he, incidentally, who coins the S.O.S. tag -- thinking he's wittily using David O. Selznick's initials, but misremembering the famous producer as Steven O. Selznick.

In her English-language debut, Abril (the sensational star of Pedro Almodovar's "High Heels" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!") shows great comedic promise. Unfortunately, in this film she's resigned to playing disapprover to Alto's zaniness. "Jimmy," she seems to say a thousand times. "I can't live this way!"

She speaks the truth, however. In a movie as dumb as "Jimmy Hollywood" becomes, nobody can live this way.

"Jimmy Hollywood" is rated R for profanity and violence.

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