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Filmed in the summer of 2004, The Amateurs has been in the can for over three years. The movie's title has gone through several changes, and imdb still lists it as The Moguls. The film has had a whopping six release dates going back to 2005, but it finally sputters into theaters today -- in Los Angeles and Dallas, anyway. Movies often have distribution trouble (you can read more about the problems this one faced in the Los Angeles Times), but the struggle of The Amateurs surprised me because it had all the makings of a sleeper hit. It's got a killer premise (think The Full Monty with porno) and an amazing cast. The film's struggle surprised me...until I saw it.
A queasy mixture of Boogie Nights sleaze and Patch Adams sentimentality, The Amateurs takes place in the small town of Butterface Fields (ho-HO!). That's where you'll find Andy Sargentee (Jeff Bridges, in shaggy dog Lebowski mode), a divorced dad who is down on his luck. His son (Alex D. Linz) is now living with a wealthy stepfather (the typically solid Steven Weber), and this makes Sargentee insecure. He's got to make some money, and fast. So, naturally, he decides to enlist the help of his friends and make an amateur porno flick.
For these friends, writer/director Michael Traeger has assembled some of the best character actors in the game, and they have a nice, unforced chemistry. There's Joe Pantoliano, not playing a scumbag for the first time in what feels like ages, as Some Idiot (don't ask). Some Idiot signs on to write and direct the porno, and his lack of concern for budgetary constraints provides the film's only real laughs. There's the great William Fichtner as Otis, who requests a job where he just gets to stand around -- he is made Executive Producer, nice touch. Video store clerk Emmett -- terribly played by Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit, who sleepwalks through his role -- signs on to film and edit the project. Tim Blake Nelson does little more than long for local bar regular Glenne Headly (great to see her again). And Ted Danson turns in a nicely subdued performance as closeted gay man Moose, always offering advice on "the ladies."
Quite the cast, no? And that's not all! What if I also told you that the adorable Lauren Graham is on hand, for a limp romance with Bridges that feels awkwardly shoehorned in? What if I told you that Deadwood's John Hawkes is on board for one half of a moron team named...Moe and Ron? What if I told you that Brad Garrett cameos as a sporting goods salesman? That Jeanne Tripplehorn has about four lines as Bridges' ex? That Oscar nominee Eileen Brennan is involved? That the always delightful Judy Greer pretty much steals the film as an over-eager, overnight porn star? That everyone's favorite bigot Isaiah Washington shows up and receives some karmic sexual humiliation playing one of three black men hired for the (perceived) size of his penis? Like I mentioned before, it's an amazing cast, and they bend over backwards to make this limp material rise. (Sorry, I've got porn on the brain here.) The trouble is, they've got a lot of heavy lifting to do.
Traeger should have simply turned the camera on and let his dream of a cast do their stuff. Instead, he creates a needlessly convoluted plot, adds at least ten superfluous characters and side stories, and caps it all off with an excruciatingly schmaltzy ending and a "twist" so obvious someone watching a different movie could figure it out.
The most grating aspect of the film is the constant, wildly unnecessary narration. This movie has more narration than Casino. The difference is that Casino was a three hour historical document spanning decades, and The Amateurs is a 90-minute string of porno gags. Bridges explains each and every event that happens before it happens, as it happens, and after it happens. And it's ridiculous because...not much happens! But Bridges huffs and puffs away over nearly every scene, documenting and re-documenting fairly mundane happenings the viewer could have figured out with ease. The following is not narration from the film, but it might as well be: "Well, I wanted a drink of water. And when a man wants a drink of water, he's got two options. He can drink from the tap or he can have one of them fancy bottled waters. Well, I think you out there in the audience know which one I chose..." Screenwriters of the world -- let's cool it with the narration. Try telling your story without it, we'll be okay.
The Amateurs is watchable enough, better than watchable occasionally, and might fare a little better on DVD -- where you can find the film come February 12th (unless that release date changes as well). But it's a huge missed opportunity. Jeff Bridges gave out books of his lovely photographs from the set at the junket I attended. The book is full of shots of the cast laughing and having a ball. I'm glad they had so much fun -- I only wish Traeger had gotten out of the way and brought some more of those good times to the audience.