It's hard to say if the sexual roundelays and uncanny happenstances of "Garden Party" are intended as a decaffeinated-double-latte homage to Robert Altman ("Shorter Cuts"?) or as some kind of audition for the next racy Showtime series, since the plot features plenty of weed-smoking and kinky Californicatin'.
Vinessa Shaw, the actress who played the world's nicest and best-looking streetwalker in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," has the sassy, sexy, lady boss role as Sally St. Clair. She's a real estate Godzilla in pumps who sweetens her deals by giving clients free samples of her mind-blowing homegrown marijuana. Sally's come a long way since her days as a stripper, though she still applies lessons she learned in the VIP Room to win friends and influence people.
Yet in the omnivorous climate of contemporary Los Angeles, even a shark isn't always on top of the food chain. Once upon a time, Sally was another struggling wannabe who posed for some graphic photos. Now they've resurfaced on the Internet, where they are discovered by a depressed, porn-addicted painter who sits up late at night obsessing over them and alienating his girlfriend. When a chance encounter brings his fantasy girl into reality, Todd (Richard Gunn) uses the sprawling house he inherited to lure Sally into a liaison. It's unclear whether she's aroused by the prospect of kooky fun and games with a client or merely wants to close the sale, but she happily agrees.
Sally and Todd aren't the only ones negotiating deals for love, sex, or money. In this assortment of narratives, stitched together by director Jason Freeland from his own unpublished short stories about making it on the margins of Hollywood, everyone is on the hustle and, simultaneously, being taken for a ride. There's April (Willa Holland), an Avril Lavigne look-alike who agrees to pose nude for a creepy photographer so she can get away from her creepier stepfather. Her male counterpart is Sammy (Erik Scott Smith), a singer-songwriter who arrives fresh off the bus and is sleeping in alleys while he auditions for lame Hollywood emo bands. Nathan (Alex Cendese), Sally's long-suffering assistant, meets Sammy in a parking lot and invites the young man to stay with him in the house where he tends to Sally's marijuana crop. A repressed homosexual from Nebraska who, like everyone else in the film, is desperately lonely, Nathan thinks he can seduce Sammy with bongloads of bud and a warm place to sleep. Soon enough, Sammy becomes aware that everyone wants to seduce him and begins to play his cards. And so on.
The problem with "Garden Party" (besides the inclination to have Sammy perform the Ricky Nelson song repeatedly for no apparent reason other than it's also the name of the movie) isn't so much the transparent L.A.-as-metaphor theme. Every film set in Los Angeles indulges that cliché. And it's not the stereotypical characters, who seem to have wandered in from a late-night Cinemax soft-porn feature. It's mostly that the overlapping stories never manage to rise to anything significant. Mr. Freeland's concept of Los Angeles's moral universe is such that even the film's putative bad guys get left off the hook, and those foolish enough to be manipulated suffer only indignity (with one possible exception involving forced sex). There's no bite, no consequence — just a very big puff of smoke.
There is, however, an element of truth. Much like casting agents and porn directors, Sally discovers all her protégés hanging out at Starbucks. If only the ailing java giant could monetize its appeal as a launching pad to, well, Internet appeal at least, perhaps its stockholders would not feel so jittery.