Couch Potato Au Gratin (Movie Review: Fred and Vinnie)

05/11/2011 02:17 pm ET | Updated Jul 11, 2011

Fred Stoller shouldn't be the star of a movie.

That's what conventional wisdom would have us believe. He doesn't look like a movie star. He doesn't sound like a movie star. He doesn't act like a movie star.

All of which are precisely the reasons he's great as the star of Fred & Vinnie. Stoller wrote the movie and Stoller stars in the movie, in which he plays... Fred Stoller. Who better?

Fred & Vinnie is a very small movie about two friends who haven't seen each other in years, but who have kept in touch by phone. The origins of the friendship are uncertain, but we quickly learn that Vinnie (deftly played by Angelo Tsarouchas,) a virtual shut-in in his darkened "cave", lives vicariously through Fred's exploits as a struggling comedian/actor/writer on the fringes of Hollywood.

The most trivial of anecdotes sends Vinnie into belly laughs -- a comedian's best audience -- one reason we suspect Fred calls so often. The long distance relationship the two men have, so comfortable by phone, all starts to change when Vinnie announces he's coming for a visit.

At first, Fred's delighted at the prospect. He'll be able to show his buddy all of the crazy Hollywood sights he's only been able to talk about. And even putting the uncomfortably overweight Vinnie up in his tiny one-bedroom apartment doesn't seem so bad. (Stoller, tall and rail-thin, together with the generously proportioned Tsarouchas, cut a classically comic pair when seen onscreen together.)

The discovery that Vinnie isn't just visiting, but has moved to Los Angeles with nothing but a bag of clothes and a beat-up suitcase containing his baseball card collection, creates a slow, creeping dread in Fred. A dread that grows the more he learns about bridges Vinnie has burned that will make it hard for him to return home. It seems things may have been way better when Vinnie was just a phone call away.

While Fred lives a Hollywood life of quiet desperation -- fruitless auditions, therapy sessions with Loony Tunes psychologists and with a retinue of friends who are all in various stages of scrabbling to make it -- his friend Vinnie is the personification of anyone who's never been in the thick of it. "I just need to get on a movie set," he tells Fred, in the belief that his talent will out as soon as a star of significant magnitude gets a load of him.

There's a reality of the comedy community that comes through for those of us who have served, and that's the separation that takes place between those in "the Business" and everyone else -- the civilians. In Fred & Vinnie, all of Fred's comedian/actor friends exhibit various dysfunctions -- paranoia, delusions of grandeur, etc. -- but theirs is a shared world. Vinnie is an outsider and, as delusional as he may be (and although even a small-time stand-up comedian back home,) he's not part of Fred's world any longer. Their history has brought them together, but it's not enough to keep them that way.

The longer that Vinnie takes advantage of Fred's hospitality, the closer his fragile host comes to losing it. The film does an exemplary job of making the viewer feel Fred's world -- not to mention Vinnie's ever-magnifying idiosyncrasies -- pressing in on him. Ultimately, Fred manages to survive, though only through Vinnie's self awareness of what a burden he's become. By the film's conclusion, Fred's travails have brought him back once again to regard his relationship with Vinnie with a nostalgic sweetness, the tone of which helps to elevate Fred & Vinnie to a level of filmmaking that has seen it invited to Sundance, Mammoth (where Stoller took Best Actor honors) and, most recently, the first-prize winner in the feature category competition for the Gene Siskel Film Center's Christopher Wetzel Award for Independent Film Comedy.

Stoller's not the only comedian who has helped to create this funny yet sad world. With a budget under half a million dollars, Steve Skrovan, a former standup himself, does a nice job at the helm, and the no-frills cinematography by Jason J. Tomaric makes Fred's corner of Hollywood look slightly seamy and worn out -- like that pair of shoes you'd kick around in but not be caught dead wearing outside. Quirky characters that leave an impression include neighbors and roommates Paul and Luther, played by Bill Rutkowski and Scott Chernoff, Lee Reherman as Adam Clark, the bombastic self-help author of Don't Be A Puss, Be A Man!, and old pal Hiram Kasten is funny as an apartment manager who wrestles with a sofa bed.

Fred & Vinnie is in full film festival mode right now, which includes a stop at a mental health festival this month. If you keep your eyes peeled, you should be able to catch it... but don't let it drive you crazy.

Marc Hershon is the co-author of the book I Hate People (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Jonathan Littman. Marc is also a screenwriter who has written several television movies for the Hallmark Channel, including Santa Jr., Monster Makers, and Wedding Daze.