Friday, May 3, 2013

Expiration Watch: THE AMATEURS

My first exposure to The Amateurs (2005) was in a discount DVD shop on Manhattan's 8th Avenue. I knew nothing about it, but the large ensemble of character actors listed on the box--headed by the always reliable Jeff Bridges--immediately got my attention. With Bridges, Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Glenne Headly, Joe Pantoliano, Eileen Brennan, Judy Greer and (of all people) Valerie Perrine playing small-town denizens banding together to make a porn film, how bad could it be? Plus it was only five dollars, so even if it was crap I could probably make back a few bucks on eBay.

Surprise, surprise--it actually turned out to be one of those shaggy-dog sleepers you secretly hope all unheralded movies in an 8th Avenue video store will be, but never are. Bridges plays Andy, a softhearted, down-on-his-luck dreamer who's the de facto leader of a group of quirky losers who are always just a corner or two away from their Million Dollar Moment. As we learn from Andy's droll voiceover, those moments are usually engineered, in a burst of inspiration, by Andy himself and acquiesced to by his forgiving friends even when they know he's batting .000. (As one character later puts it, it's not like they've got anything better to do.)

Bridges cogitates
When his persistent failures cause his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to leave him and find a wealthy new husband (Steven Weber), Andy decides he needs to "stop trying and start doing," if only to feel like less of a loser around his teenage son. In a barroom epiphany he realizes the answer is to make Butterface Fields "the first town to band together to make the first full-length amateur adult film." He convinces his buddies to pitch in $2,000 each in exchange for a variety of responsibilities and credits--and of course for the millions they're sure to reap when the movie's a success. (This was obviously before the collapse of the adult DVD market.)

The plot sounds a lot like the more well-known Zach and Miri Make a Porno, but if anything it's the other way around, since The Amateurs was produced several years before Kevin Smith's comic raunchfest. It's also quite different in tone and approach. Forgoing gross-out humor and nudity, it relies instead on an undercurrent of naivete more common to an early Coen Brothers or Preston Sturges comedy. And in place of the snarky, media-savvy twentysomethings of the Smith film are an altogether older and more clueless bunch. Aside from the kid from the video store who follows them around with a camcorder (Patrick Fugit), not one of these guys knows a thing about how to make a movie. And yet with each failed attempt to cast willing actors and each new concession to friends and reality, Andy stubbornly presses on.

Danson as Moose
Along with the witty script by first-time writer-director Michael Traeger, what ultimately sells The Amateurs is the willingness of its cast to bring their A-games to this obvious labor of love. Danson in particular is hilarious as the overcompensating, closeted Moose, whom everyone knows is gay but is generously allowed to perpetuate his manly charade anyway. As expected, Bridges is solid as the bighearted softie Andy, while Joe Pantoliano drops his tough-guy persona to play a slightly addled 4-day(!) photobooth attendant who decides he's the man to write and direct the porno. Eileen Brennan is an oddball choice as his deaf, happily oblivious mom, William Fitchner shines as Andy's clueless buddy, Otis, and a game Valerie Perrine arrives like a gust of dreamgirls past to show us how great she still looks, in an obvious nod to the roles of her 1970s heyday.

The name's Headly
As a filmmaker I had trouble swallowing some of the recurring gags concerning the making of the porn film, but I could let those slide since they do reinforce how clueless these guys are. I also tend to lose patience with movies about porn that avoid sex or nudity, but here it would have marred the film's Capra-esque sensibility (plus it ends up justifying itself later). That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of dirty, descriptive dialogue, made all the more hilarious by how ingenuously it's delivered.

The Amateurs was a long-fought-for dream project for director Traeger, whose script and devotion to his vision brought him the loyalty of a supportive, highly talented cast. It's too bad the film--which did well in festivals--got stuck in distribution hell for two years before being dumped straight to video in 2007. Even more unfortunate is that Traeger hasn't directed a movie since. The Amateurs marked a promising debut, and both it and its maker deserved much better.

Crew without a clue
NOTE: This title expired on 5/8/13. If you're considering purchasing the DVD, please support this site by using the link below. Thanks.


James said...

I watched this film. Good find!

David Speranza said...

Glad you liked it. Thanks for giving it a shot!