Actor Barry Primus made his directorial debut with MISTRESS, a kind of low-rent parallel to Robert Altman's THE PLAYER. While Altman's far superior film skewers Hollywood's power elite, Primus brings his gently satirical gaze to bear on the rather less glamorous fringes of the filmmaking
Marvin Landisman (Robert Wuhl), a once promising young director whose film career was cut short by the on-camera suicide of actor Warren Zell (Christopher Walken), is now in his early forties, an embittered director of instructional cassettes for the home video market. While watching a print of
GRAND ILLUSION in his shabby Los Angeles apartment, he receives a call from down-at-heel, ex-studio producer Jack Roth (Martin Landau). Roth has unearthed Marvin's long dormant, completely uncommercial screenplay about an artist who commits suicide and believes he has a shot at producing the film.
Marvin agrees to cooperate, only on condition that not a word of his precious screenplay be changed and that he be allowed to direct.
Marvin, Roth and aspiring young writer Stuart Stratland, Jr. (Jace Alexander), son of a famous screenwriter, meet with three potential investors. George Lieberhoff (Eli Wallach), whose biggest claim to fame is that film industry people used to buy clocks in his store, will put up money if there's
a role for his girlfriend, Peggy Pauline (Tuesday Knight), a talent-free Madonna lookalike. Carmine Rasso (Danny Aiello), a shady businessman with a repertoire of gruesome Vietnam stories, will put up money if ... there's a role for his girlfriend, Patricia Riley (Jean Smart), an airline
stewardess and recovering alcoholic. Evan M. Wright (Robert De Niro), a slick, sleazy mini-mogul, will put up money if ... there's a role for his mistress, Beverly Dumont (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and the script is changed beyond recognition. (One of many complications is that Beverly, a genuinely
talented black actress, is also sleeping with Carmine--something she's only too happy to use as leverage in order to guarantee getting the best part.)
After a crisis of conscience triggered by a split with his wife (Marvin had made her life unbearable for several years as a result of his obsession with the suicide screenplay), he realizes it's time to let go of that obsession and compromise his screenplay simply in order to get something made.
He doesn't even bother to read Stratland's new script--which accommodates not only the wishes of the producers but the young writer's infatuation with Peggy--before attending the climactic party at which the investors are to sign their contracts. The party, however, turns into a disastrous series
of amorous and professional mix-ups, and the deal falls apart. Disillusioned, Marvin resumes his day job.
One night, with Marvin once again watching GRAND ILLUSION in his apartment, he receives another phone call from Roth, who's found another investor interested in discussing the project. After categorically stating that he's not interested, Marvin relents and asks, "What time?"
Produced (along with Meir Teper) by De Niro through his Tribeca Productions, MISTRESS is a benign satire of life on the seedier edges of Tinseltown. But although the screenplay, by Primus and J.F. Lawton, has plenty of comic moments, it is poorly structured and develops little momentum, shifting
from one loosely connected sketch to another. The occasional attempts to switch from comic to tragic mode are also misguided, quickly sliding from the serious to the maudlin.
MISTRESS, however, is saved by its witty, well-observed sense of place and some snappy dialogue, delivered to perfection by a talented cast with whom the director clearly has an affinity. Although Robert Wuhl delivers a largely one-note performance as Marvin, Primus elicits bright performances
from the other cast members, including Landau as Roth--a clinging, fawning figure whose sad desperation saves him from being a caricature. De Niro's turn as the ruthless investor is a hilariously comic send-up of his diabolic businessman from ANGEL HEART.
Given a better structured screenplay, MISTRESS might have given THE PLAYER a run for its money. Instead, it merely offers glimmers of what might have been, and settles for being a cinematic footnote. (Profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: R
- Review: Actor Barry Primus made his directorial debut with MISTRESS, a kind of low-rent parallel to Robert Altman's THE PLAYER. While Altman's far superior film skewers Hollywood's power elite, Primus brings his gently satirical gaze to bear on the rather less gla… (more)