WATCH: Director Azazel Jacobs on DOLL & EM

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After making a big splash in America as part of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, English rose Emily Mortimer toplines her own mini-series Doll & Em, starting on Sky Living tonight.

As Em, a colossally arrogant, unbearably insecure actress, Mortimer plays an exaggerated asshole version of herself à la Steve Coogan in The Trip (or just about anything for that matter). Inconveniently receiving a phone call from London just as she’s hanging out with Bradley Cooper at the Independent Spirit Awards, her best friend Doll (real life childhood pal Dolly Wells) is in need of a sensitive ear after a bad break-up. About to play the biggest role of her career in a tacky, female version of The Godfather, a spur of the moment invitation to fly Doll out to LA and have her work as her personal assistant turns out to be a self-serving gesture, Em being very much in need of someone who can nurture her narcissism for the duration of a long shoot.

Tensions rise almost immediately, when after an emotionally exhausting day on set, Doll’s bestie-turned-boss can’t be bothered to get off the couch to get ice cream from the fridge and has her new assistant fetch it for her. It soon escalates from schedule management and coffee runs, to playing nanny for Susan Sarandon’s kids at an exclusive party in Laurel Canyon, the awkward laughs ladled on as their friendship becomes increasingly frayed.

A split personality from the start, Em’s a Hollywood Jekyll & Hyde, failing to reconcile the grounded, humble country girl Doll grew up with, and the ridiculously demanding despotic diva. Spoilt, and prone to temper tantrums, Mortimer manic depressively mood swings between self-congratulatory sympathy and bullying bombast with Wells as the straight man, cringing in all the right places and popping the aspirant leading lady’s ego with a passive-aggressive remark where called for.

After Momma’s Man and Terri, director Azazel Jacobs has a firm handle on infantilized basket cases trying oh so hard to grow up. Co-written by the co-stars whose delivery is acerbically Coogian, Jacobs’ low-key shooting style lends the kind of off-the cuff spontaneity of Christopher Guest, and for its first few episodes, Doll & Em is a larky, laugh out loud La La Land satire of self-reflexive silliness, featuring the most sensational selection of send-up cameos since Robert Altman’s The Player (Chloë Sevigny, John Cusack, Ben Chaplin and Andy Garcia among them).

Watching all six instalments straight through at the London Film Festival, the tonal swerve the series makes in its penultimate episode towards glumly ruminative dramady felt like Jacobs had pulled off a remarkable balancing act. Breaking up this sudden shift over a number of weeks, viewers are quite likely to tune in a month later and think they’re watching a completely different show.

It’s a point at which a memorably amusing series turns into unexpectedly substantial one, delving deep into Em’s neurosis and playing like a careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary tale. Em wants Doll there as a servant so she can live as she believes she ought to be accustomed, and still live with herself by having a constant reminder of more mumble beginnings. But after Doll’s been there a while and ingratiated herself so easily into the celeb circle Em could only become part of through aggressive mingling, Em’s not sure if she wants her there at all, and even less sure about whether she needs a friend or a flaterer.

People who act for a living tend to have a peculiar self image. As Dolly befriends the teamsters, quickly becoming the more popular presence on set, Em starts to see her relative worth in terms of praise she receives from cast and crew between takes. This becomes the core of an existential crisis, exemplifying what it is to get so caught up in the quest for above-the-title stardom, against which no friendship – no matter how far back it goes – stands a chance.

Much like Lena Dunham’s Girls, beneath the jokey façade, Doll & Em is frankly cynical series about how quickly life long friends can become frenemies.

Speaking to Azazel Jacobs before the show landed at Sky, we talked about how he came to meet his co-stars, female friendships and why it was shot in an episodic format instead of as a narrative feature.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on February 18, 2014

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