New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA” PAINTS AN ECCENTRIC PORTRAIT OF LOS ANGELES AND ITS CITIZENS

Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Turn the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” That’s definitely true in the new film FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA where oddball characters bounce off each other like billiards in a pool hall. The comedy contains plenty of universal truths, but make no mistake, this is a very particular film about the very unique types of eccentrics who populate La La Land. It’s both hilarious and moving, a little gem of an indie dramedy that is available now on VOD.

So, just what kind of LA eccentrics can be found in the landscape of FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA? Start with Rodney (Steve Olsen), the lead character, a jobless writer trying to break into the entertainment industry who thinks that his quick quips and bemused attitude about everything are enough of a resume. Rodney walks around, chattering about, running his mouth with almost a stream-of-consciousness commentary as he goes. He’s old enough to be more mature, yet he clings to his man-child tendencies and his inability to reckon with the fact that even in the surface-obsessed LA, work earns rewards. 

His laissez-faire approach to everything has opened the door for his hottie girlfriend Tess (Katrina Bowden) to grow tired of him and look for a way out. She’s an ingenue-type in her late 20’s, who will likely become a stylist after more casting rejection, and she’s looking for a life raft out of the dead sea of their relationship. She finds that in Keith (Jared Kusnitz), a pilot who still wears his cap during their trysts. Tess casually tosses Rodney out and, with nowhere to turn, he starts living out of his run-down car.  

Rodney is the kind of guy who is so used to rejection that he blithely accepts his beleaguered fate, even as he becomes a vagabond. Rooting for such a schlemiel could quickly start to grate but what keeps the audience on his side is Olsen’s comic chops. He makes Rodney consistently funny, mumbling his bon mots and reacting to all of life’s indignities with his Buster Keaton-esque deadpan facial expressions. Too bad Rodney wasn’t around during Hollywood’s silent era; he might’ve been able to get a job in front of the camera. 

The desperate doofus starts stealing power through an extension cord for his daily needs from the electricity outlet outside a stranger’s home. The house belongs to June (Katherine Cortez, in the film’s best performance) and she is a piece of work herself. An ailing widow who forgets to take her med’s, she finds solace in the bottle and being a shrew to all who cross her path. She particularly likes busting the balls of her fussy neighbor Woody (veteran character actor Tim Bagley) who complains about how she’s letting her place go to seed and drive down the resale values of the other houses on the block. But when June discovers the thieving Rodney, she finds an even better punching bag.

She puts him to work, mowing her lawn, painting the fence, and lo and behold, Rodney becomes quite the handyman. He even strikes up a contentious, yet flirtatious relationship with June’s brittle daughter Olivia (Jenna Willis). She is on edge from her job as a nurse, and her angst is compounded by her cranky mom and the new interloper. Still, as played by Willis, Olivia shows signs of thawing. She is a nurse, after all, and the fiery redhead does have a big heart.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree here as June is shown to be all goo underneath her hard shell too. The scene which introduces her to us showcases her thwarting a convenience store robbery when she shames the potential stick-up artist into stopping because she recognizes him from the neighborhood. Cortez does an excellent job making her character wholly believable, swinging from cranky to cutesy on a dime, very often from line to line. 

June is like so many of the old guard hanging around the City of Angels, from West Hollywood to Los Feliz to Echo Park and the like. She’s let herself go, shambling around with greasy hair and a bedraggled wardrobe, yet there is still a spark and passion present in almost all she does. Some would throw her away, but June won’t let them. She knows the city burns a lot of people, and indeed, it has beaten June into submission, but it can’t extinguish her inner spark. The senior is a survivor, even a fixture in the community, and won’t go quietly. And she cares. It’s her rapport with all those in her orbit that keeps her going. June enjoys the bitchy banter with Woody, not to mention the moments when she can showcase her motherly tendencies, like when she counsels convenience store clerk Quinton (Rad Chad) and all comers…including Rodney.

One of the great things about FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA is how it makes all of the peripheral characters specific and worthy of admiration. It reflects the utmost respect that director Michael A. MacRae and his fellow screenwriters Jordan Hodges and Wyatt Aledort have for such types. They understand that for most everyone in LA, it’s a daily struggle to matter, to make rent, to keep their heads above water, and to exist in a town that rolls out the red carpet for the rich and celebrated, but no one else. The filmmakers love actors too as they’ve given strong roles to veteran performers like Kate Flannery and Richard Riehle as well. 

Even when you can see where the movie is headed, it charms by treating every character with respect, giving them lots of business to showcase. Even Keith gets a lot of screen time and is able to round out what could have just been a shallow villain. Ultimately, FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA argues for inclusion, courtesy, and consideration of every soul who makes up a community, even the utterly misbegotten. Rodney becomes a friend to June and grows into an ersatz member of her family. Even Woody comes around in the story, suggesting that he and June’s squabbling is more of a comedy routine the two have been running forever than the loathing it appeared to be at first. 

Characters change and grow, mostly protagonist Rodney of course, without ever becoming 180-degree different versions of where they started out. This is a grounded and more realistic comedy than most, striving to keep it honest in how it presents the fringe of LA. Even though everyone’s life here is a little desperate, made all the darker by the constant gleam of the Southern California sun, none of these are “garbage people.” There’s a quiet nobility to these has-been’s and never-was’ on display in FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA. This little indie that could will put a lump in your throat, in between laughs. The movie is quite the Valentine to the town and its lovable eccentrics. It knows that all you need to overcome the daily indignities of LA are friends, a few breaks, and a functioning car. 

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