HBO // 2005 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 30th, 2005
Hollywood. From the bottom up.
Sprung from the sticky loins of Stephen Soderbergh (Schizopolis, Full Frontal) and George Clooney (Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind) comes Unscripted, a low-budget, improvisational HBO comedy about life as an underpaid, underappreciated struggling actor trying to make it big in Hollywood.
But also, funny stuff happens. Or so I'm told. At least, funny stuff would have eventually happened had HBO not canned the show.
Unscripted follows the lives of Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg, and Jennifer Hall, three young actors and actresses essentially playing themselves in Hollywood as they struggle to find jobs, scrounge together rent money, and generally make fools of themselves on awkward audition after awkward audition. The knockout Krista tries in vain to land quality acting roles, but ends up typecast as a bikini babe despite her best efforts. Jennifer ends up working the cash at a used car dealership to make ends meet. After a seemingly endless string of disastrous auditions, Bryan manages to strike a moderately large supporting role in a feature film, only to be on the receiving end of ire and jealousy from his acting friends.
When not at the bar, they spend their time at acting class, trying to endlessly improve their task and somehow "make it big," all three trying to come up with the secret combination of dedication, talent, shameless self-promotion, and blind luck that separates the millionaire superstars from the tens of thousands of wannabe struggling actors and actresses...
Unscripted is authentic and accurate to the point of being a painstaking viewing experience, the same way a reality television show called "Your Crappy Job" would be, with eight hours in a cubicle or 10 hours flipping burgers. It is a daring notion to strip away the glamorous illusion of the Hollywood mythos and show exactly how onerous and tedious a job being a small-time actor is, I admit, but Unscripted strips almost to the bone. Once the charm of having the Wizard revealed wears off, what are we left with? A painfully awkward show about lousy jobs. I already have a lousy job. Do I really want to spend my leisure time watching a show about other people's lousy jobs? As I watched episode after episode of Unscripted, it turns out the answer is "no." A resounding no, as it turned out.
For a show about struggling actors, it is hardly surprising that this is exactly what Unscripted makes you do in order to appreciate their lives. Getting through the series was tantamount to a recurring dream I had once, back when I was unemployed, of endlessly applying for crummy jobs, going on awkward interview after awkward interview, sweating nervously and pulling anxiously at my tie, like Prometheus having his liver pulled out for all eternity. However, Unscripted does have Angelina Jolie in it, which my dream lacked; at least, that particular dream. Some big-name stars make appearances in Unscripted, like Uma Thurman, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Hank Azaria, Keanu Reeves, and Sam Rockwell, all playing themselves, of course. The list of cameos from industry insider to struggling actor is massive in scope, and each episode reads like a Hollywood "Who's Who," crammed to the brim with the people responsible for making your favorite movies, but who you would never stand a hope in hell of recognizing on the street. Like the cameo of Sam Mendes (Jarhead, American Beauty). Do you know what he looks like? You don't? Exactly.
The three protagonists go to their acting classes (taught by the stoic Frank Langella) and brush up their trade as best they can. Everyone talks about everyone else behind everyone else's back, schemes for audition roles, and tries to steal jobs from one another, all the while stroking the collective egos of their peers after every failed audition, like a big dysfunctional support group of used car salesmen. Unscripted is an endless repetition of acting class, crappy part-time jobs, failed auditions, and a night of frustrated drinking and casual sex, to be repeated the next episode verbatim. For a show steeped in improvisation, Unscripted is disappointingly predictable. It is even more painful when considering the fantastic things that keep springing from the collaborative minds of Steve and George. Quite frankly, I was surprised they signed off on a show this weak.
Here and there the jokes do come, and I concede that Unscripted has a few chuckles, but I am not sure if I have the patience for a show this shapeless and unformed. The kinetic and unrehearsed nature of the show gives the show an erratic flow; equal parts hilarious brilliance and frustrating thickness. Its sense of humor falls within striking distance of the strangely embarrassing ad-libbed The Office if you took all the good jokes out of it and just left the devastating embarrassment. I am told this works for a lot of people as a comedic device, but in Unscripted, it just makes me feel uneasy and anxious, like going to work.
Shot on low-budget digital, Unscripted has that authentic, hand-held documentary appearance about it, winning it style points in the flexibility and indie credibility categories, but losing points in overall appearance. Washed-out colors, heavy grain, and an overall lack of detail go with the territory of lower-end digital cameras, all evident in Unscripted with painful detail. In terms of audio, the on-the-fly recording captures all those annoying ambient and environmental noises other shows strive so hard to avoid; the rustle of papers, a sudden gush of wind, somebody bumping into the boom mic operator, etc. The show has only dialogue, no soundtrack to speak of, and gets a bit tiring on the ears, but is captured and reproduced accurately enough. Both English and Spanish dubs are available, but the English is far nicer, sounding more natural and dynamic.
No extras of any kind to speak of, which is just as well. After all, a "making-of" documentary for an ad-libbed show would just be redundant.
I admire the spirit in which a show like Unscripted is created. I admire a show gutsy enough to take its material from behind the camera instead of in front, daring to be different. I just wish I actually liked what the show captured on tape. Err, with the exception of Jennifer Hall. I'd like more of her on tape, please, and I'd keep the tape under my mattress.
The only attraction I can see for this show (besides the aforementioned beauty) is for people who, similar to the main characters, desire to break into Hollywood, or are simply curious about the internal machinations of the "business." Whether this show will serve as a guiding light of inspiration or a crushing throb of disillusionment to any wannabe actors is your decision to make individually. It may not be a funny or well-balanced comedy, but Unscripted takes itself behind the scenes into the nitpicking, glamorless details of trying to "make it big" in the industry and exposes exactly how tedious and absurd the entire process of celebrity is, often with staggering accuracy. Give credit where credit is due.
If you love the behind-the-scenes glances into the Hollywood movie machine, and like your humor subtle and self-deprecating, Unscripted will be right up your alley. But for everyone else, an ad-libbed show about struggling actors will feel like exactly that: a struggle. The occasional bit of brilliant improvised dialogue pops up here and there, but not nearly enough to keep the show buoyant.
A show with enough chutzpah to make a sitcom out of the tedious lighting and sound test sequences that precede every camera take is something to be admired. However, having spent only a microscopic amount of time on a movie set before, I will be the first to tell you that everything that goes on behind the camera is mind-numbingly tedious and boring.
In this sense, Unscripted is far truer to form than I would have liked.
Being a struggling actor is a soul-crushing job, and Unscripted picks up more than its share of this unhealthy environment. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site