First released overseas as The Moguls in 2005 but rechristened The Amateurs for its very limited U.S. release late in 2007, this fitfully funny indie about a small town banding together to make an amateur porno movie is real hit-and-miss (with more of the latter) but it's not an unpleasant 99 minutes, thanks largely to its game cast of familiar names and laid-back genialness. As spoofed in Robert Altman's The Player, one can see how this script was probably pitched: it's basically The Fully Monty meets Waiting for Guffman.
Charismatic loser Andy Sargentee (Jeff Bridges), in a perpetual funk since his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) divorced him and with their son moved into rich second husband Howard's (Steven Weber) palatial estate, comes up with a scheme to make a lot of money and raise the spirits of his fellow small town schlubs: pool their resources to produce a feature-length amateur porno movie.
Inexplicably, everyone unhesitatingly seems to think this is a swell idea, and core investors kick in $2,000 apiece. Barney Macklehatton (Tim Blake Nelson), the sanest of the bunch smitten with loveless Helen Tatelbaum (Glenne Headly), is appointed co-producer and PR guy; "Some Idiot" (Joe Pantoliano), who resides with his crazy and deaf mother (Eileen Brennan) and who lives up to his name, becomes the film's writer-director; video store geek Emmett (Patrick Fugit, star of Almost Famous), becomes its cinematographer-editor, etc.
In one bright exchange early on, another pal, Otis (William Fichtner), asks Andy if there job for "a guy who does nothing but stand around and watch?" He, naturally, is named executive producer.
Predictably, the neophyte pornographers run into all sorts of problems, particularly in finding local talent for the film's requisite sex scenes. Some of this is surprisingly clever and funny, with writer-director Michael Traeger continually subverting audience expectations. When Andy is reluctant to recruit a fresh-faced 20-year-old (Melinda Dahl) who works at the local ice cream parlor, she surprises him with her worldly experience and utter willingness to play an explicit sex scene with three black men. They in turn shock the crew when they finally drop their draws and fail to live up to the racial stereotype on matters of "size." This leads to a very funny scene at a coffee shop where one of the men, (Isaiah Washington) demanding his entire fee, gets into a loud argument with Andy over "blacks with small dicks," their voices so loud horrified small town diners evacuate en masse.
Unfortunately, the rest of the picture doesn't live up to these occasionally inspired moments. Part of the problem is the film's awkwardly inauthentic use of adult slang, which seems to have been adopted for no other reason than to avoid a dreaded NC-17 rating from the MPAA. The inept filmmakers discuss the "girl gobbling at least three guys scene," "multiple nob jobs" and chicks who "love to scrump." What's that you say? I haven't the faintest idea. It's almost like a foreign language at times requiring an interpreter. Maybe the idea was that these guys are so totally innocent their idea of raw porno industry lingo is simply naïve, but the result is extremely awkward, like trying to tell your parents a dirty joke without the aid of explicit terminology.
Anyone who's ever tried that knows it never works, and one wishes the film really had gone for broke, one of gleeful smuttiness. The result might have been something closer to John Waters' hilarious farce Polyester (1981) instead of a warmed-over, Americanized Full Monty, itself greatly overrated.
Another problem with the film is that it asks its audience to suspend disbelief once too often. Beyond the many wild improbabilities of the porno film's conception and production, The Amateurs concludes with a story development so completely unbelievable, even in Frank Capra fantasy terms, that instead of ending the film on a charming high note one is merely surprised the filmmakers actually expected its audience to buy its wild fantasy finish. (The climax is put into motion by another major credibility problem: Andy shoots his porno film in 16mm because "it'll look better" than video. Of course, nobody shoots porno movies on film anymore, and the only reason The Amateurs goes this route is to accommodate yet another extremely forced and artificial plot point.)
This is the kind of movie that actors love to congregate on; they seem drawn to these eccentric ensemble pieces and, if nothing else The Amateurs is fun to watch for its enthusiastic performances, even though many of the characters have little-to-nothing to do. Besides Bridges, fifth-billed Ted Danson comes off best as Moose, an in-the-closet gay man who tries much too hard to pass himself off as straight. He's always talking about manly sports and never-around girlfriends yet his sexual orientation is obvious to absolutely everyone in town, though Moose won't admit it even to himself. When he's finally outted, Moose demands to prove his supposed heterosexuality by appearing in one of the film's big sex scenes with aging local stripper V (Valerie Perrine, an amazingly well preserved 62 when this was made), resulting in another highly predictable but undeniably funny scene.
The technical credits are adequate, though Nic. tenBroek's incessant score is much too emphatically whimsical for its own good.
Video & Audio
The Amateurs looks okay in high-def, but the picture is shot with not much more flair than the average TV movie. The film (1.85:1 on the two or three screens it played in America, 1.78:1 on the 1080p / VC-1 encoded on HD DVD) is totally ordinary visually, but pleasant enough for what it is, and the colors, contrast, and clarity are all adequate.
The TV movie air continues with the audio, available in DTS 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, none of which gets much of a workout in what's really a talking heads movie. English hard-of-hearing and French subtitles are included.
Supplements, all in standard 480i/p, include an hour's worth of better-than-average featurettes, as well as an above-average audio commentary. Behind-the-Scenes with 'The Amateurs' avoids many of the pitfalls of the usual puff-piece promo, actually offering some insight into the film's production while moving along at a decent clip. An intriguing Still Gallery actually consists of artful photos taken by star Jeff Bridges, a practice he's been doing for several decades. Bridges along with writer director Michael Traeger and producer Aaron Ryder offer a similarly surprising audio commentary, one that's unusually frank about various disappointments with the script and final cut. I usually find commentary tracks of recent movies, even good ones, to be pretty dire, but this one was an exception.
With the HD DVD format on the fast track to oblivion, The Amateurs (also available on Blu-ray) is unlikely to spark a sweeping resurrection. This reviewer laughed out loud a couple of times but also stood there dumbfounded at some of the material its script expected me to buy. Still, it's the kind of satisfying film that, if it's 11:00 on a Friday night, you're wide awake and you've got absolutely nothing else to watch, The Amateurs offers up just enough laughs and ingratiating effort to be worthwhile. Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest books, Japanese Cinema and The Toho Studios Story, are now available for pre-order.