Ellie Parker is who Naomi Watts would be if Watts weren't smarter or more famous. The actress might even argue that Ellie Parker is who she used to be, before David Lynch's 2001 ''Mulholland Dr." catapulted her to fame and into the paws of a certain CGI gorilla currently stomping through movie theaters. ''King Kong" may provide Watts with massive global stardom -- and she's good in it, too -- but ''Ellie Parker," made for 0.001 percent of the catering budget of ''Kong," proves she's one of the nerviest actresses around.
A few days in the life of a struggling Hollywood actress, ''Parker" is as indie as they come: shot on video, hand-held camerawork, found sound. Writer/director/costar Scott Coffey is an acting friend of Watts's who made a short version of this film around the time they both appeared in ''Mulholland"; a successful screening at Sundance gave him the momentum to turn it into a feature. Watts stuck around, and good thing she did.
''Parker" opens with an audition sequence reminiscent of the one that took ''Mulholland Dr." and Watts's career to an entirely new level, but here it's played for desperate film-biz comedy. Ellie channels her inner Scarlett for a bored young director named Smash, then jumps into her Honda and drives to the next tryout: just another actress barreling down the 405, singing along to Blondie and rehearsing a New Jersey junkie-whore accent.
Ellie has a loser musician boyfriend (Mark Pellegrino, ''National Treasure") and a tart actress pal named Sam (Rebecca Rigg of TV's ''The Guardian") who's both savvier and less principled than her friend (she makes up childhood traumas for their method-acting class). A series of unfortunate events forces Ellie to confront her inner emptiness: ''I don't know who I am," she sighs with touching dim-bulb sincerity.
What she doesn't realize -- but what the film has great sport with -- is that no one here knows who they are. Lack of identity is the normal Hollywood state of being; that and a sense of biding time for the big role you haven't yet read for. Ellie's car gets rear-ended by a neurotic romantic interest named Chris (Coffey), and even he isn't sure whether he's gay or straight, a cinematographer or his own epileptic twin brother.
Chevy Chase turns up in a cameo as Ellie's agent, drolly rewriting the story of his recent marital breakup. Even stardom doesn't ease the pain; Ellie and Sam go to hear a band and who's onstage but Keanu Reeves, playing at being a grunge-rocker. They all live in a world of constant, nervous improv.
Eventually the energy of the original short runs out and the movie coasts on fumes, but it remains surprisingly enjoyable for all that. The industry in-jokes are wicked and the psychic weariness fully felt -- ''Parker" is made by people who know their business. That includes Watts, who jumps into her character's skin as if she were revisiting the old neighborhood. There's a frisky lack of vanity to her playing: Ellie makes dopey decisions, gets zonked on Vicodin, acts her little heart out (the joke is that she has talent), and at one point, for perfectly sane reasons, vomits blue. Then she heads for another audition, certain there's a role out there better than the one she's living.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.