Writer/Director (and Avengers sidekick) Clark Gregg’s second feature behind the camera is Life With Mikey with a brain and testicles. It’s about a child agent scrambling around Hollywood to book a gig for his new teenage client. It’s got that The Player spirit where everyone is either poisoned or broken, and totally gets across this panicky, desperate vibe that is perfect for the bottom-feeder lead character. Like his last film, Choke, this has terrific performances from a game cast made up of excellent character actors, a very sharp young actress named Saxon Sharbino, and best of all, Gregg himself.
We meet Howard as he blows a gig for his preteen client, and gets fired by his bitchy, greedy mother. At the kid’s audition, he is super-impressed by Lydia, a young actress whose crying in her screen test convinced Howard she was in genuine trouble. Surprisingly enough, Lydia hires him as her agent, and the buzz on her talent is such that Ang Lee is interested in her for the lead of his new film (a series based on young adult novels). Despite the protests of Lydia’s dad, he locks her down a great deal (no “adjusted gross points” bullshit), and forms a special bond with her, maybe his last hope at becoming a genuine Hollywood bigshot. But of course, it’s showbiz, and everyone’s in it to win it, and Howard has to scuffle with the film’s producers, Lydia’s drunken old man, and his own sense of morality.
The film is funnier, deeper, and more biting than Choke. It is rougher around the edges, probably due to its short production schedule and limited budget, but that’s totally fitting for the material, and helps to put you in the shoes of this scrambling, oft-beleaguered figure. We see how easy and natural it is for a rational, decent human being to get so caught up in the mechanics of the film industry that morally dubous calls are made so fast that the true damage isn’t evident until the smoke clears. Being kind, or attentive, is a sort of trap used by those who have something to leverage in order gain control over the multitudes that need them to advance their own careers. But Howard seems like an alright guy. Even after his client shitcans him, and hires a competitor, he still delivers him his PSP that he left at their last encounter. His relationship with Lydia is rather touching, because we feel like she is the first person in a long time to overlook his scummy exterior and attempt to connect with the human being under the needy loser. Once he realizes the extent of the father’s drunken incompetence, he inadvertently takes her under his wing in an attempt to nurture her talent, yes, but also to give her a base that so many talented young actors never get to have.
Gregg is, perhaps, the best I’ve ever seen him as Howard. He’s pathetic, and he knows it, but like all people in his position, he refuses to slow down long enough for him to let it get to him (when his Bluetooth earphone breaks, he tapes it up rather than buying a new one). His fumbling attempts at flirting with neighbor Amanda Peet are somehow charming, even while he’s admitting that he “stalks” her and pushing dates on her the same way he pushes his clients. When the film spins into a sort of morality play, we are so familiar with his gooey, human center that we actually want him to make the right decision, even it’s at the cost of his fledgling career.
Sharbino’s performance is also a large factor in that. She strikes a very delicate tone of teenage precociousness and genuinely cynical, adult knowing; sometimes she seems like the victim, other times we wonder if it’s her who’s holding all the cards and knows it. Seemingly contradictory elements of the script end up working because of her ability to portray a complicated, mature version of a character we’ve seen a million times, both in real life and in the movies. Her rags to riches story of landing the Ang Lee gig seems like fantasy, but it is successful at getting across just how much is at stake and how stressful it can be being that close to the limelight when the future is uncertain.
A bunch of Gregg’s actor buddies pop up, peppering it with colorful, funny supporting characters. Besides Peet, who’s nuanced and vulnerable as Howard’s love interest, there are funny turns by Sam Rockwell, Felicity Huffman, Alison Janney, Molly Shannon, and, in a cameo, William H. Macy. Paul Sparks does a 180 from his role as the duplicitous Mickey Doyle on Boardwalk Empire with his borderline over-the-top portrayal of Lydia’s dad. He seems like the latest in a long line of P.O.S. parents of child stars, just looking to squeeze their kids for money at the cost of their childhoods, but the more we learn about him and Lydia we realize that he’s a more complex figure than he initially seems. He’s no paper-thin villain, and he provides another wonderfully complicated, human figure to this story.
Gregg did a Q&A after the screening, and he emphasized how much of a labor of love it was for him to get the thing made (not the first or last time I heard that this past week). They had a shooting schedule of about two and a half weeks, with Gregg writing, directing, and acting in a starring role, which is no small feat, even with big-time connections (and a role in the 3rd biggest movie of all time). The hustling paid off; I adored this movie. It somehow found a way to be more cynical and more heartfelt than many similar showbiz parables. Gregg has the chops to pull of an endearing lead performance, and his work as a writer/director is only improving. I hope this S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show he’s starring in doesn’t curtail his plans to get behind the camera in the near future.