Now here's a picture with a simple, breezy comedic premise just aching for execution that will twist it into a cult classic. "The Amateurs" had all the potential in the world to be a charming, oddball delight, but it's a mess. A horrible mess. Albeit a horrible mess with some big laughs and the evergreen presence of Jeff Bridges, who is officially one of the few actors who can make any film tolerable even if the man just stands in the background.
Life moves pretty slowly in the small town of Butterface Falls, leaving Andy (Jeff Bridges) frustrated with the progress of his miserable life. Looking for a way out of his depression, he concocts a plan to make an adult film with his friends (Joe Pantoliano, Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, William Fichtner, and Patrick Fugit), hoping to pull together enough cash and interest from local women (Lauren Graham, Glenne Headley) to make it a success. Now with a plan, Andy and his "crew" set off to create their porno masterpiece, only no one in the town is exactly sure how to wrangle a dirty movie together.
Written and directed by Michael Traeger, "Amateurs" is a friendly comedy about smut. It sounds like an implausible mix, but the picture has a magical way of handling such potentially off-putting material. Traeger is chasing a lighthearted tone of small town camaraderie, and "Amateurs" gets surprisingly far on simple comedic ideas as the Butterface boys embark on their adult film production. It's almost enough to focus directly on the foibles of a doomed porno, but Traeger isn't interested in minimalism and his movie soon pays the price for his ADD approach to the story.
While the porno plot is the main thread woven throughout the film, "Amateurs" is more involved with its characters and their sitcom-like personal defects. Traeger is writing very broad material here, even branding these characters with obnoxious names such as Moose, Barney, Some Idiot, Moe, and Ron. These guys are a part of the filmmaker's fantasy community of lovable buffoons, but they don't earn the special subplots Traeger sets aside for each of them, especially the one in which Danson's character is a closeted homosexual often bragging about his hetero conquests to cover his "secret." They can put that gag to sleep any day now.
With Traeger off playing an endless game of tag with his characters, "Amateurs" loses wind quickly, not to mention the whole film is something of a jumble, with sloppy editing and a voiceover from Andy that annoyingly squeezes the viewer's hand communicating each and every story detail as if the viewer was a complete imbecile. It gets old in a hurry. Much of the film looks cobbled together from a longer cut, with the female actors like Graham, Headley, and Valerie Perrine (as one of the porn actresses) shuffled in and out of the picture without much explanation. At first the storytelling speed is cute, but soon it reveals sizable narrative potholes that derail the film's ache for merriment.
At least there's Jeff Bridges, who puts in an expectedly unexpected performance as the wild-eyed center of this harebrained scheme. His reactions to production set-backs and successes are a joy to watch. Certainly, "Amateurs" has moments of hilarity: my favorites emerging from the casual batting around of sex-act euphemisms ("scrumpin'," "honey pot," "bangin' donuts"), which Fichtner loves to verbally play with. There are numerous moments where the movie settles down and enjoys itself with moments of slapstick and sexual mortification, but there's just not enough of it. The absence of insanity is disappointing.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), "The Amateurs" is a softly lit production, as if to amp the fairy tale quality of it all. The DVD retains the softness of the image, but loses the colors and detail along the way. It's tough to tell if this is the fault of the original photography or the DVD presentation. Either way, the image isn't assertive or compelling.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix isn't energetic, but separates dialogue and soundtrack cuts pleasingly. With a script this effusive, the effort is appreciated.
A feature-length commentary track with director Michael Traeger, producer Aaron Ryder, and actor Jeff Bridges has an air of fatigue about it for one reason: "The Amateurs" has spent three years trudging through various cuts and international releases, finally ending with this DVD. The boys seem proud of their creation, and discuss the challenges of putting together a film with so many supporting characters to pay attention to. Bridges is the most articulate on this track, prodding the production team to share their feelings on putting together this low-budget comedy that went through exhibition hell. Also, the trio spends a healthy amount of time laughing at their own movie.
Fun fact: Bridges hated the screenplay at first glance. Second glance too. It took a third look and a table read to get him to commit.
"Behind the Scenes with 'The Amateurs'" (25 minutes) is mercifully head and shoulders over the normal EPK filler that DVDs cling to. This is a fine document of the film's production, interviewing cast and crew about highlights of the shoot. We learn about the unusual rehearsal period, watch Lauren Graham juggle (poorly), and hear about first porno experiences from a few of the cast members.
"'The Amateurs' Photography Book" (30 minutes) is a presentation of production pictures taken by Jeff Bridges during the shoot. These are the famous Widelux camera snapshots Bridges is known for, and a commentary is provided by the photographer, Traeger, and Ryder to explain the origins and emotions behind the book.
Finally, a theatrical trailer is included.
"Amateurs" really loses its way in the final reel with hokey contrivances: people losing body parts, fortunes achieved, and the fairy tale ending that is embarrassingly miscalculated. It's a near-miss disaster, saved by the occasional ray of performance sunshine. Truthfully, I've seen real porno with stronger narrative believability and concentration than this film.