Writer Sebastian Gutierrez began his feature directing career by giving parts to women who are more often stuck playing girlfriends, wives, and eventually mothers: his film Women in Trouble featured Carla Gugino, Adrianne Palicki, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and Marley Shelton in some of their biggest feature roles to date. Admittedly, many of them were given parts as sex workers, but the titillation was more worshipful than strictly exploitative.
Gugino in particular may be the patron saint of the modern underused actress, and Gutierrez brings her even further to the fore in Elektra Luxx, a sequel of sorts to his previous film. She plays the title character, a recently pregnant porn star who walked away from the business in trouble and now seeks to start over teaching self-help sex classes. The other actresses return, too, picking up story threads: Palicki and Chriqui are Holly and Bambi, a bickering odd-couple of escorts, while Cora (Shelton), a stewardess, approaches Elektra with news about the deceased rock-star father of her child.
It’s mostly the guys who Gutierrez shuffles out as his storylines continue; Josh Brolin appeared as the now-dead Nick Chapel last time and is effectively replaced here by Timothy Olyphant as a private eye on Elektra’s trail. Olyphant maintains his understated charm as he takes a liking to Elektra, but he’s positioned in the thankless-love-interest role usually given to an equally talented actress. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets the most male screentime, returning as eager, dorky porn blogger Bert Rodriguez in vignettes gradually revealing that what he really needs is the affection of his buddy Trixie (Malin Akerman).
It’s this appreciation of women that makes the movie work as well as it does. Gutierrez is more writer than bravura director — the clumsy visual rhythms mostly alternate between two-shots and close-ups — and even his writing can get a little cutesy; for the second movie in a row, a stuck elevator causes Elektra to soul-search in her underwear, a silly contrivance that can’t be laughed away with a knowing reference to the previous instance as it is here. His dialogue is sometimes clever, sometimes just odd.
But Gutierrez clearly loves his characters and his actors, and that love makes even the awkward stuff sort of adorable and heartfelt. Palicki is particularly funny as the malapropism-spouting Holly Rocket, who loves her friend Bambi but can’t quite manage to get on the same page with her, and it’s a delight to see Gugino anchoring a whole movie with her offhand intelligence. Gutierrez loves Gugino so much, in fact, that he gives her a second character to play: Elektra Luxx has an imprisoned twin sister, whose presence seems to be established in preparation for Women in Ecstasy, the director’s proposed conclusion to the series.
I admire Gutierrez’s ambition, but Elektra Luxx might play even better without knowledge of the first movie, because it’s an improved version of the same shtick. With less incident and fewer soapy subplots, it has time for weirder diversions: a brief musical number, Gordon-Levitt’s broad webcam clowning, dabbling in black and white, and Elektra hallucinating a meeting with the Virgin Mary (an uncredited Julianne Moore!). This candy-colored mixture of farce, melodrama, and a hint of noir owes more than a little to Pedro Almodovar, and Gutierrez knows it — both Women in Trouble and Elektra Luxx list Almodovar first in their “special thanks” credits — but the more contemplative Luxx benefits from taking a step away from the Almodovar playbook. If Women in Ecstasy manages to get made (these are obviously low-budget labors of love) and improves by the same subtle degrees, he’ll have a striking trilogy, and a swell tribute to his undersung ladies.