Cinematic protagonists don’t get much more passive than the hapless, luckless schlemiel Fred Stoller plays in Fred & Vinnie, a low-key, ’70s-style semi-autobiographical comedy-drama he also wrote. Stoller here essentially plays a variation on himself, a lonely bit actor and former stand-up comedian who schleps from audition to audition and role to role while working on a manuscript about which Los Angeles eateries don’t make solitary eaters feel sad or self-conscious. Stoller is a professional sadsack, an inveterate day player whose shambles of a personal life is one long, sad, self-deprecating joke with his misery as the punchline. Yet in the eyes and overactive imagination of Stoller’s agoraphobic friend (Angelo Tsarouchas), he’s leading a life of James Bond-style glamour. Fred & Vinnie is about an outsider who lives vicariously through his buddy’s tragicomic existence, one that saner minds wouldn’t wish upon their worst enemy.
In an exceedingly rare lead performance, Stoller—whose life similarly provided the basis for My Seinfeld Year, a hit Kindle single about his ill-fated year writing for Seinfeld—plays a good-hearted, long-suffering comedy journeyman who has learned to laugh at his life so that he isn’t perpetually overwhelmed by tears. The world treats Stoller like gum stuck to its shoe, but Tsarouchas reveres his friend as a Hollywood player and valuable conduit to the exciting world of show business. When Tsarouchas finally decides to leave the prison of his apartment on the East Coast to try to make it in Hollywood as an extra, he stays with Stoller until his friend’s patience and generosity are stretched beyond their breaking point.
Fred & Vinnie excels during early scenes that invite audiences to see the world from Tsarouchas’ perspective, where the commonplace magically becomes fantastical, and a trip to the post office to drop off some mail becomes as riveting as any paperback thriller. At first, Stoller finds this quality flattering and appealing, as Tsarouchas gives him the approval and validation his professional life has been assiduously withholding from him. To the rest of the world, Stoller might be a loser, but to his daydreaming pal he’s a superstar; but after an initial honeymoon period, Stoller comes to realize that once Tsarouchas has settled in, getting him out might prove prohibitively difficult. The relationship between Stoller and Tsarouchas is sensitively and tenderly drawn as a union of weirdly complementary outsiders that’s dysfunctional yet somehow works, but the film’s depiction of Hollywood is otherwise broad and distractingly cartoonish. Fred & Vinnie loses momentum in its final act, but before it stumbles to a close, it’s a sweet, empathetic, and sometimes funny exploration of life and friendship on the margins of both society and showbiz.
Key features: Phone messages from the real-life inspiration for Tsarouchas’ character, a Park City TV interview, Tsarouchas’ audition tape, and a pair of deleted scenes.