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Amateurs, The

First Look Pictures // R // February 12, 2008
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 28, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Hey, remember those musicals with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland where the whole town bands together to gussy up the old barn and put on a show? The Amateurs kinda takes that cheery old story and runs with it, only the sleepy little town of Butterface Fields isn't getting ready for a hoedown. Nope, they're making a porn flick.

Andy (Jeff Bridges) feels kinda down after a quick visit with his son at his ex-wife's palatial new digs. Thelma (Jeanne Tripplehorn) has saddled up next to a quadraseptazillionaire (Steven Weber), and even though Andy's good-natured kid loves him for who he is, he still feels like he needs to do something dramatic to earn his son's respect. The only thing is that Andy's broke and can't hold down a job, so he mulls it over in the local watering hole until it hits! Amateur porn's kind of a big thing these days, and since nothing screams "amateur!" like a bunch of guys who really don't know what they're doing, Andy gets the whole town to team up and bang out their own homebrew porno.

Andy's pals are all game. Some Idiot (Joe Pantoliano) kinda likes the writer/director label, scribbling down a way-too-ambitious script teeming with skyscrapers, high speed trains, helicopters, and, um, in flagrante bomb-defusing. Otis (William Fichtner) just wants to stand around and collect a paycheck, so Andy naturally makes him executive producer. Emmett (Patrick Fugit) works at the corner video store and took a couple of film classes over the summer, and he gets the nod as cinematographer. The list goes on way longer than you'd want to read here, but you get the general idea. Although throwing a crew together and lining up a few thousand bucks to shoot the flick all fall into place quickly, finding a bunch of people willing to screw in front of a camera for a couple grand a pop...? Well, that's the tricky part.

This may be writer/director Michael Traeger's first time stepping behind the viewfinder, but he somehow managed to assemble a hell of a cast anyway. Even if a few of the names don't sound all that familiar, you'll definitely recognize their faces: Jeff Bridges, Ted Danson, Patrick Fugit, Joey Pants, William Fichtner, John Hawkes, Lauren Graham, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Steven Weber, Isaiah Washington, Brad Garrett...and that's barely half of 'em. The only bad thing...? The cast is all The Amateurs really has going for it. The moral of the story is that none of the movie's wannabe filmmakers have any idea what the hell they're doing, but even if it was practically by accident, they somehow managed to walk away with something special anyway. That's kind of how The Amateurs feels like it came together too, minus the "special" part. Traeger's quick-'n-dirty description is that The Amateurs is is the type of movie Frank Capra would've made if he were putting together a porn flick, and it aims for the same sort of balance between sugary-sweetness and raunch that's made Judd Apatow a household name. The difference is that Apatow's comedies are...y'know, funny, and The Amateurs...? Not so much.

The Amateurs tries to milk most of its laughs by having its characters say finger-wagglingly-outra-a-a-a-a-geous things. Stuffy old folks file out of a diner as Andy has a shouting match about "improper porno penises" when some of the guys they hire for the bunch-of-black-dudes-tearing-apart-the-little-white-girl scene aren't exactly packing what he had in mind. The gang rattles off a checklist of all the scenes a porno is supposed to have, jumping through just about every synonym for the female anatomy you've ever heard and tossing in six or seven more for good measure. Ted Danson plays a hypereffeminate gay guy, and since Moose is blissfully unaware that his pals already see him poking out of the closet, he overcompensates by boasting about all the broads he's boffed. Clunky jokes like "for a half dozen guys unloading on you so you look like you're a melted candle today, we will gladly pay you on Tuesday?" flop and flounder, and there's not a legitimate laugh anywhere in the whole flick.

The Amateurs knocks down the fourth wall a few times with its narration. F'r instance, instead of subtly foreshadowing that the hulking brother of one of Andy's stars is going to go postal once he gets out of prison, the narration goes ahead and just smirkingly announces it. The Amateurs leans way too heavily on its narration, though, which is kind of ironic since part of the movie's meta-commentary is that a good flick should "show, not tell". Its first fifteen minutes are almost nothing but narration, pointing at just about everyone in town and gabbing briefly about 'em. It's a really lazy way to introduce a movie, and hardly any of the characters ever amount to more than the five or six word descriptions Andy lobs out.

I do appreciate the fact that The Amateurs doesn't have some moral committee trying to shut down Andy's porno, and no aging movie mogul is pinching the flick away from him. As its writer/director puts it, The Amateurs is a movie about people just being nice to each other, without any real badnik in sight. It's just that a dusty little town banding together to churn out some porn should be a lot funnier than this. The stabs at small town color don't really work, its characters are too thinly sketched, and the movie's riddled with a bunch of sappy romances that just feel thrown together. It's about as family-friendly as a movie about porn can be, with all of the vulgarity limited purely to dialogue; a way too lengthy glimpse at Ted Danson's ass and a couple of gals jiggling around in bras are about as racy as the visuals get. The Amateurs ends on a really unusual note, climaxing with a "...the hell?" dismembering fight scene out of a completely different movie before building up to something more cheery and upbeat. Traeger defends his Capra-esque happy ending in the disc's audio commentary, but it's not the fact that it's kinda schmaltzy that bothered me -- it just seems unearned.

I have a lot of respect for folks like Michael Traeger. It's a colossal task getting a movie off the ground -- something I could never hope to pull off -- let alone snagging a distribution deal and a heckuva cast like this. It's one thing to pan some ego-stroking, overpriced studio comedy like Norbit where everyone involved is just doing it to collect a paycheck, but it's something else entirely for a fiercely independent flick that took years and years to get going. I respect The Amateurs in that sense, but unfortunately, that's about as far as my admiration for this tepid comedy goes. Skip It.

Video: The Amateurs' visual style doesn't exactly dazzle in high-def. The photography tends to be somewhat soft and grainy, having a low-budget, rough-hewn look to it. The 1.85:1 image lacks that tactile, three-dimensional pop that gearheads usually go for, and fine object detail is generally pretty mediocre. There's also some light speckling, something I'm not used to seeing in a movie whose theatrical run wrapped up just a few short weeks ago. It's okay, but all in all, The Amateurs looks more like a lackluster airing on HBO-HD than a shiny, newly-minted Blu-ray disc.

Audio: First Look has shrugged off lossless and uncompressed audio on all three of its next-gen releases, but that really doesn't matter for a movie like The Amateurs. Although there's some light ambiance in the surrounds and just enough stereo separation to remind viewers that this is a 5.1 mix, The Amateurs roots just about everything front and center. The sound design is exactly what I'd expect from a lower budget, dialogue-driven movie, and even though the surrounds and subwoofer collect dust for pretty much 98 minutes straight, there aren't any glaring flaws with the mix.

The Amateurs' audio is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 (mislabeled as Dolby Digital Plus; 640Kbps), DTS 5.1 (768Kbps), and 2.0 stereo, alongside subtitle streams in English (SDH) and French.

Extras: The audio commentary with Jeff Bridges, writer/director Michael Traeger, and producer Aaron Ryder is fun and the point where I'd much rather give The Amateurs another spin with this track than the movie's actual audio. A lot of the best stuff swirls around Jeff Bridges, who reteamed with a bunch of folks he'd worked with all the way back in the '70s, how he hated the script so much at first that he scheduled a reading to hammer it into his management just how awful it was, and how his brother Beau almost wound up in the best friend role. There are quite a few other great notes as well, such as shooting much of the movie on location in an actual sleepy little town, Ted Danson's suspicious lack of a panty line, and Raising Arizona helping to inspire The Amateurs' opening sequence.

Although the commentary was recorded before The Amateurs' limited release on these shores, Traeger does make it a point to respond to some of the criticism he's gotten at festivals and screenings overseas, especially taking offense to jabs at the sunny, upbeat tone of its last few minutes. One downside is that the three of them tease at a couple particularly interesting topics without really following them through. They briefly touch on the legal and distribution hiccups that kept The Amateurs out of theaters for two years straight, and they note in passing that at least one actress came close to having to bow out of the movie entirely, but those comments quickly come and go without any real explanation. While that sort of thing is definitely a drag, I still enjoyed the commentary enough to recommend giving it a listen.

Viewers who don't want to sit down with an audio commentary for an hour and a half may want to opt for the Cliff's Notes version in "Behind the Scenes with The Amateurs" instead. Aside from condensing the highlights from the commentary into 26 minutes, "Behind the Scenes..." also has brief notes from more of the cast and crew, quips about their first times seeing porn, and a bit of insight into what it was like working under a first-time director. It's also worth noting that this really is a making-of featurette, not the sort of overly promotional EPK that studios usually dump onto DVDs and Blu-ray discs. The 4x3 featurette is presented in standard definition.

Jeff Bridges has snapped panoramic, black and white shots on his film sets with a Widelux camera for more than twenty years now, and "The Amateurs Photography Book" follows Bridges as he spends a half hour thumbing through the book he put together for this movie. He's joined once again by producer Aaron Ryder and writer/director Michael Traeger, laughing and reminiscing their way through each page. Bridges has an incredibly sharp eye -- these photographs look incredible, especially with these high-res scans -- and they capture more than just boom mics and mugging actors. Quite a few of the lower-profile folks on the set, from focus pullers to...hey, Creed from The Office, are highlighted, and as they look back on The Amateurs, Traeger hints at all of the references to The Andy Griffith Show that I somehow missed while watching the movie itself. Even those who aren't interested in the commentary should still give this extra a quick skim for the pictures alone. If you'd like a preview, Bridges has these photos available on his website.

Another barrage of trailers rounds out the extras. Presented in high definition are theatrical trailers for The Amateurs, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Relative Strangers, The Proposition, Journey to the End of the Night, King of California, The Contract, and 10 Items or Less. Trailers for Paris, je t'aime and Day Zero are offered in standard definition only.

Conclusion: The Amateurs immediately caught my eye when I first read about it, thanks to a clever premise and a hell of an ensemble cast. Unfortunately, the movie's tepid sense of humor leaves it playing less like a sharp, witty indie comedy and more like a feature-length version of the dreck CBS carts out every Monday night. The Amateurs is backed by a couple of nice extras, although the movie looks and sounds so unremarkable on Blu-ray that readers hitting Blockbuster wouldn't be too worse off just picking it up on DVD. Skip It.

The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.
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