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Under the Skin

Photo by Sophie Olmstead
IN TWO DECADES OF MOONLIGHTING from his day job as a screenwriter for entertainments such as Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: Dream Warriors -- between them, a fair assessment of his peculiarly corrosive views on Hollywood -- Bruce Wagner has managed to become the poet L'Oreal of Hollywood's skin-deep classes. From Force Majeure, a loose reworking of six vanity-published short stories patterned on Fitzgerald's The Pat Hobby Stories, about a failed screenwriter, swinging wide through the cyberpunk-cum-Faulkner miniseries Wild Palms, to his 1997 novel I'm Losing You, Wagner has staked out a well-trodden corner of the public domain as his own -- that of the writer for hire under fire, filing furious dispatches from a bungalow at the frontlines.

Which is why it's somehow remarkable that against all conceivable odds, Wagner has managed to direct from his own book a small gem of quiet beauty. Tonally close to The Sweet Hereafter, I'm Losing You the movie was produced by Christine Vachon's Killer Films -- a pit-bull New York indie with the spiritual enticement to have been attracted to a book in which an agent adopts a homeless woman and her child, and makes the woman his sex slave, and where an agoraphobic producer, on leaving his Beachwood Canyon estate for the first time in 20 years, dies of a massive coronary. The finished film, which contains neither of those characters, was financed and then pointedly cut loose by Lions Gate, rescued by the tiny Strand Releasing, greeted with no better than middling trade reviews at Telluride and Toronto, and finally let out of the car in a sea of Kubrick fans, in the hopes that someone would give it a place to stay. That it abandons the book's spleen-on-a-stick in favor of considerations of mortality and Jewish mysticism is perhaps the least of the film's miracles.

"People have a need for certain things," Wagner says over lunch on Santa Monica Boulevard, still in signature black, but having abandoned his trademark floor-length leather topcoat in these high holy days of July. "And once in a while, they have a need for that scathing Hollywood satire. At least the people in this town do -- no one anywhere else does. But I went in a different direction. I wanted to make something closer to Douglas Sirk or The Best Years of Our Lives than I did Swimming With Sharks. And I certainly didn't want to make a movie about a venomous agent or producer -- I could give a shit about that, you know?

"The film takes place in this weirdly hermetically sealed environment. And I liked the idea of making a movie that was relentlessly grim, but in a soap-opera context."

And yet, melodrama or not, I'm Losing You is the polar opposite of the camp aesthetic in which much melodrama comes gift-wrapped these days, and manages to present a raft of working actors at the acme of their game. Frank Langella, as the producer diagnosed with inoperable cancer on his 60th birthday, opens with a stunned reaction shot and escalates from there. Elizabeth Perkins, as the doomed AIDS ingénue, finally reclaims the romantic sparkle her dishrag best-friend roles have all but obliterated. Ed Begley Jr., as an actor-monster, and Gina Gershon, as a coke-seared ex-wife, redefine their range in exactly one scene apiece. Andrew McCarthy, as a failed actor selling AIDS policies short, has not just his finest, but possibly his only real role to date. And it should be Rosanna Arquette accepting for Best Actress at the Spirit Awards next year, with presenter Ally Sheedy trying to get offstage.

Throughout I'm Losing You, Hollywood proper is scaled back from co-equal character to scenic backdrop. Given the subject, it seems nearly impossible that so many familiar faces could happen upon some of their best roles in a first film. "Well, I'll tell you one reason," says Wagner, trying hard to dodge the compliment. "Because actors are starved -- they so need and want to do characters that are fleshed out, or dialogue that is unusual but literate. They are starved for that. They are truly vessels. And if you give them shit, they give you shit.

"I still want to do anarchic comedic stuff," Wagner assures, citing an upcoming Killer Films project titled How To Marry a Billionaire that he describes as a "flat-out Buñuelian comedy. Although, of course, you can't say that -- you can't even say a Blake Edwards comedy anymore. People say, 'Who?'

"You can't predict the way your life unfolds. And the way mine did, my first film turned out to be a meditation on death. A few weeks ago, things looked very bleak," Wagner says reflectedly, referring back to the film's hobbled distribution and tepid critical support. "At least now we have the equivalent of releases in New York and Los Angeles. But my books are often about the worst things happening to people in the business. And I certainly can't see this as the worst-case scenario."