In case you're wondering how director-writer Barry Levinson will rebound from the expensive and embarrassing flop of Toys, the answer isn't the frail Jimmy Hollywood. It's less expensive and embarrassing, but it's a clinker nonetheless. Except for a stylish turn with Bugsy in 1991, the filmmaker who showed sly comedic ease with Diner and Tim Men has allowed pretension to bloat his work since winning an Oscar for Rain Man.
Jimmy Hollywood was meant to be the film that let Levinson move fast on his feet again with none of the studied myth-making that infected his family saga Avalon. Working with dispatch on TV's Homicide inspired him to shoot Jimmy Hollywood in Los Angeles in just six weeks for a relatively low budget of $16 million. The plot seemed simple: Jimmy Alto, played by a newly blond Joe Pesci, is an actor from New Jersey who's determined to make Hollywood beg for his talent. So far, there are no takers. His hairdresser girlfriend, Lorraine De La Pena (Spain's vivacious Victoria Abril), longs to groom the rich and famous. Christian Slater plays Rain Man, er, William, an idiot savant who knows electronics and nothing else. Loyal William will follow Jimmy anywhere.
These are the Hollywood fringes, and Levinson knows them well. He arrived there from Baltimore in the 70s seeking work as an actor, writer and comedian. For a while, there's Diner-like humor and feeling in Jimmy's musings on fame as he and William stroll the walk of stars on the depressingly seedy Hollywood Boulevard.
But Levinson can't or won't stay simple. He grabs a big issue — crime — and runs with it. Jimmy needs an outlet for his career frustrations so he becomes a vigilante. It's a great role. With William's help, he makes videos of dealers and thieves in the act and sends the tapes to TV stations. The police are humiliated, but Jimmy's a savior of the streets, a star. There's a catch: Revealing his identity could get him killed. Levinson pumps up the link between crime and celebrity as if he'd just discovered the hackneyed theme. Along the way, what could have been a minor movie gem comes apart at the seams.