In Pretty Bad Actress, the once rising star of Gloria Green (Heather McComb) has long since crashed back to earth, and the now struggling actress can’t find an acting gig. To make matters worse, after her latest audition, she’s knocked out, kidnapped, and thrown into the back of a van. When she comes to, she finds herself trapped in the basement of the kidnapper’s home along with another one of his victims, high school student Dawnee (Stephanie Hodes), who happens to be a Gloria Green superfan. Inside, the two women endure their captivity while hatching a plan to escape, but outside Hollywood is rousing to a story that just might revitalize a starlet’s career.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is that the film was originally released in 2011 under the title Love, Gloria. This explains why the film not only shows characters using Blackberrys and flip phones, but why the subject matter feels so odd. The current political sensitivities we’re all accustomed to appear to be missing here. For example, Dawnee is constantly bullied for her awkwardness and obsession with Gloria Green’s character Trudie. Dawnee even gets “pants’d” by a male classmate, which feels anachronistic because of #metoo and also because of the societal crackdown on bullying. Also, I’m not sure that “pants-ing” someone is even a thing anymore. Now that we’re in a time where fads and memes come and go so quickly, e.g. “What are those?!” and “Damn, Daniel…”, it’s weird watching something much older. All of this is to say that Pretty Bad Actress is old enough to feel outdated, but not old enough to feel like a period piece that’s interesting to watch.
Beyond that, the tone and focus are very inconsistent. The film starts off focusing on Dawnee’s struggles as a maladroit high school kid and then shifts dramatically to Gloria’s struggles as an actress without ever really resolving Dawnee’s plot. To complicate matters, Gloria keeps flashing back to a car accident, which sets up some kind of important reveal, but it only results in a forgettable conversation late in the film. The humor swings just as wide as the film’s shifting focus. It starts off with juvenile high school hijinks, but quickly involves a blowjob sight gag and then later a bit about “custom-fit vibrators”.
Fortunately, there are genuine moments of humor that anyone can appreciate. For instance, Gloria’s intrepid assistant, Cheryl (Jillian Bell), is the straight (wo)man that makes what humor there is work at all. She is the normal person foil to the perceived absurdity of Hollywood. But 2011 was already three years removed from 2008’s Tropic Thunder which offered an even more absurd portrayal of Hollywood. So, when Gloria’s management goes about using her kidnapping as a way to save her career instead of save Gloria herself, it seems less absurd and more practical.
One of the biggest issues with Pretty Bad Actress is that there aren’t any likeable characters. Gloria’s management only cares about making money, even after they realize that Gloria might be dead. Gloria herself is too rough and cynical to be sympathetic. Even after her assistant Cheryl shows up to rescue her, Gloria berates her for not silencing her phone during meetings. And, regrettably, even Dawnee comes off more annoying than anything else, mainly because of how flat Stephanie Hodes plays her.
Overall, the film is a victim of trying to tell too big of a story. It could have succeeded if it focused on a feel-good story of an awkward high school girl who’s obsessed with a Hollywood actress and shunned by her classmates only to be redeemed when the actress shows up at her school. Alternatively, the movie could have been a comedy of errors focusing on Gloria being kidnapped but thinking it was just an extreme intervention to help her get off drugs. The film could also have simply been a scathing satire of Hollywood’s soullessness focusing almost entirely on industry suits capitalizing on Gloria’s kidnapping with their film budget growing as Gloria’s situation deteriorated. Unfortunately, Pretty Bad Actress tries to tell a version of all three stories and more in one movie, and the experience suffers for it.