“Why am I attracted to someone so superficial?” wonders even-tempered Aaron Lambert (Noah Wylie) about his growing feelings for aspiring actress Maggie Chase (Tanna Frederick) halfway through Henry Jaglom’s Queen of the Lot. Add to Aaron’s dismissive descriptor flighty, self-obsessed, gratingly cheerful, and fixated on celebrity to the point of mania (Maggie tells him without irony that her goal in life is to have more Google hits than Angelina Jolie) and you have a fair character sketch of the redheaded ingénue whose biggest success to date is the appropriately named Red Wrecker trilogy of B-action films. Of course, Aaron suspects there’s another side to this would-be “Queen of the Lot” (Maggie’s description of Norma Shearer while watching the credit sequence from The Women) and to a degree there is. In a more serious moment, the actress comes clean about her addiction (more to fame than alcohol it seems), her insecurities over both her body image and her Iowa farm-town upbringing and even hints at a past sexual incident involving her brother.
But mostly Maggie is the eternal adolescent, full of shrill pronouncements of “Oh my God” at any mention of media exposure, jumping at the chance to engage with the paparazzi, and generally seeming too stupid for anyone to take seriously. Co-opting claims of having created an insufferable lead character, Jaglom includes a meta moment in which Maggie uncovers a quote from real-life Boston Globe critic Ty Burr that describes a recent performance of hers as “the most irritating performance of the year.” Apply that assessment to Frederick’s efforts and you might be on to something.
Of course, placing an unpalatable character at the center of your work doesn’t necessarily result in a bad movie. Putting an unconvincing character whose contradictions seem more scattershot hysterics than coherent personality in that place is another matter. Surrounding the character with too many supporting players and wedging in too many subplots doesn’t help either. Under house arrest for her second DUI, and loving the attention it brings, Maggie comes to stay with Dov Lambert’s (Christopher Rydell)—her married boyfriend and Aaron’s brother—extended clan of powerful producers, actors, and writers at their palatial Hollywood mansion, which naturally triggers the alarm on her ankle bracelet, a plot inconvenience easily enough dispensed with.
Cross-cutting back and forth between different groups of characters, exploring the surroundings with his trademark array of measured zooms and pans, Jaglom takes in an array of movieland types, some of whom lead only to bad satire (Maggie’s “life coach” with her ridiculous mental and physical exercises), others triggering parallel narratives involving the family’s sudden economic woes or Maggie’s boyfriend’s gambling problem. This last subplot, which unfolds in predictable enough fashion, comes to take over a disproportionate chunk of the film, vying with the rom-com plotting in which Maggie’s affections switch from Dov to Aaron, for screen time.
But not all the stories are so dull. Stealing the show as—what else?—an uncompromising film director, Peter Bogdanovich, sporting his trademark neck scarf, angrily refuses the Lambert patriarch’s insistent demands that he remake Trouble in Paradise. “You can’t re-do Lubitsch,” he insists, before launching into a priceless anecdote about the great German-American director, related to him, as he explains in savory detail, by the late Jack Benny.