Hustler Extraordinaire

JIMMY ALTO (JOE PESCI) IS A MANIC middle-aged runt with dyed blond hair and an obsessive ambition to be a Hollywood actor. A former aluminum-siding salesman from New Jersey, he's got the actor's jargon down pat, but his biggest claim to fame is the ad he's paid for on a bus bench: JIMMY ALTO-ACTOR EXTRAORDINAIRE. If you saw this guy approaching you on Hollywood Boulevard, where, lacking work, he hangs out most days with his loyal, simpleminded pal William (Christian Slater), you'd duck, put off by his tacky clothes, his aggressive self-promotion, the pungent whiff of cocky desperation.

It takes some daring for Barry Levinson to build his quirky comic drama Jimmy Hollywood around such a loser. He's a funny guy, but he's a pest, and Levinson presents him with an affectionate ambivalence that keeps the viewer slightly off balance. Is he a hero or a schmuck? The director of "Rain Man" and "Good Morning, Vietnam" is back in the small, low-budget, personal mode of "Diner" and "Tin Men," but those movies were about close, cohesive communities. "Jimmy Hollywood" is set in a deracinated dreamland, a Hollywood gone sour. The legendary boulevard is awash in crime and drugs; it's a place where nobody really belongs and all relationships are tenuous. Jimmy doesn't even know William's last name. And he seems to have nothing in common with the Spanish woman he lives with-the volatile but sensible Lorraine (Victoria Abril)-except her desire to be a hairdresser to the stars.

The ironic twist is the backhanded way Jimmy falls into fame. Enraged by a thief who's broken into his car, he and William apprehend the felon, videotape the capture and dump the guy on the police-station steps. Through a fanciful turn of events, the cops think a well-organized vigilante organization is at work. Jimmy has found his role: as the shadowy figure Jericho, whose videotape pronouncements against street crime make him a media legend. It's one of the better jokes of the movie that as Jimmy/Jericho becomes a vigilante hero, it's only his videotape performances he really cares about ("What do you think of the work?" he grills Lorraine. "I thought there was vulnerability.") It's the acting exercise, not the social cause, that really excites him.

Both a character study of a colorful failure and an elegy on the rotted dream of Hollywood glory, Levinson's atmospheric movie both fascinates and frustrates. The lack of connection between the characters may be the director's point, but it makes for dramatic sketchiness. It's essentially a solo piece, and good as Pesci is (as all the actors are) you begin to weary of Jimmy Alto's hypersolipsism. The vigilante conceit strains credulity, and the climax in the empty expanse of a once grand movie palace is portentously protracted. Yet you keep rooting for "Jimmy Hollywood," because it has the bittersweet, unexpected flavors of a personal vision. It may not be Hollywood's idea of a socko entertainment, but, unlike many a hit, it follows you home.