Judge Brendan Babish laughed more watching One Night in Paris than this limp comedy.
Not your average adult movie.
It usually doesn't bode well for a film when, after premiering at a film festival, it gathers dust for three years before getting a minuscule theatrical run. But this is exactly what happened with The Amateurs, which debuted at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February 2005 but didn't get its limited domestic release until December 2007. With such a promising cast—including Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Joe Pantoliano (Memento), William Fichtner (Go), and Ted Danson (Cheers), and anchored by the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges—The Amateurs can't possibly be that bad, can it?
Facts of the Case
Andy Sargentee (Bridges) is an unemployed, middle-aged loser, but he seems pretty much okay with that (remind you of anyone?). However, unlike Jeff Lebowski, Andy lives in a small town, is happily married, and has a teenage son. He spends most of his time at the local watering hole, hanging out with other middle-aged losers who seem for the most part satisfied with their low social status: there's Barney (Nelson), who spends his days hopelessly pining for the town floozy, Helen (Glenne Headly, Dick Tracy); there's Some Idiot (Pantoliano), a mostly nondescript dummy; Otis (Fichtner), a genial and quiet man who still seems vaguely threatening at all times; and Moose (Danson), a closeted gay man who masks his sexuality with invented tales of a sordid heterosexual past. When Andy's wife, Thelma (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Waterworld), leaves him for Howard (Steven Weber, Wings), a wildly successful businessman, he takes stock of his life. Andy realizes he can't offer his son any of the material comforts Howard provides for the boy, and this leads to depression and desperation. Andy must do something to redeem his life, and make enough money to provide for his child. And then it hits him: he can make a porno! Then sell it! And make lots and lots of money!
The only problem is, he can't do it alone, so he enlists his kooky friends to help him; and they are just crazy enough to go along with this hair-brained scheme.
I vaguely remember hearing of a film starring Jeff Bridges about a bunch of small-town guys getting together to make a porno. It sounded promising, and a small kernel of anticipation was planted. But then, years passed and no film ever appeared. So when I noticed The Amateurs was essentially getting a straight-to-DVD release (it played on four screens for two weeks), I dialed down my expectations; but as it turns out, not nearly enough.
I knew the film wasn't going to work after about 10 seconds, when Bridges, in a voice over, introduces us to his hometown, Butterface Falls. (For those unfamiliar with the word, "Butterface" is a derogatory term for a woman who has an attractive body, but an ugly face.) I immediately blanched because my wife was sitting next to me, and I had talked her into watching the film. Now, to be clear, it isn't that I find the term "Butterface" offensive; it was that its use in the film was so juvenile and unfunny. Of course, this one "joke" did not ruin the film (though the town's name was often invoked), but it did set the tone for a surprisingly low level of sophistication. So instead of an intelligent, witty, lascivious movie, what I got was a 90-minute raunchy sitcom. By sitcom I don't mean to invoke Seinfeld or Friends; this is more akin to something like Stacked.
Part of what entrenches the movie's sitcom-y feel is one-note characters who rarely seem to exhibit real, nuanced emotions. All of Andy's friend's have narrowly defined personas, and they never break out of these constraints. What makes it worse, these conceits are supposed to be the source of much of the film's humor, but there is little comedy to be mined there. Some Idiot is just an idiot. Moose is in denial about being gay—to a ludicrous extent. Barney is a lovelorn sadsack. Still, these characters exhibit the depth of Hamlet compared to the female roles in the movie. Somehow, it seems that nearly every attractive woman in Butterface Falls (shudder) has spent their lives eagerly anticipating the moment when a group of strange middle-aged men would ask them to appear in an amateur porn film. I suppose this portrayal of women is sexist, but I can't muster any outrage because it was just so odd and unfunny. What planet is this film supposed to take place on?
Poor Jeff Bridges does what he can in a hapless role. He seems to inject Andy with a bit of small-town Lebowski charm, but it doesn't really work. His character's foibles might be touching in a different context, but the constant absurdity of his situations—arguing with an unbelievably rude clerk in a sports store, competing with his son's ridiculously lucrative stepfather—sap any hope of pathos. That said, Bridges does garner the majority of the film's few laughs, mostly through sheer force of his naturally engaging persona.
But maybe these problems are my fault. Maybe I should never have expected a film about a group of middle-aged men making a porn film to be anything but low-brow hijinks. And maybe if they had cast Dane Cook in the lead my lowered expectations would have been met.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know it's not uncommon in Hollywood to remake successful movies, usually several decades after their initial release. While I understand the impetus behind this practice, I always thought it made more sense to remake films that were unsuccessful, but were still promising. As I wrote earlier, The Amateurs has a very intriguing premise, and I know the idea could work in more capable hands.
Surprisingly, since the movie was given such a minuscule promotional push by the studio, First Look Pictures has put out a pretty good DVD. The low-budget comedy has adequate picture and sound, but the bonus features are substantial and interesting. The commentary track, featuring Bridges and the The Amateurs' writer and director worth hearing for tales of how small pictures get made, and how talented actors get attached to flawed projects (Bridges initially hated the script, but came around after a table read). There are also two behind-the-scenes featurettes, the strongest of which is Bridges' photo book.
Don't let the impressive cast—and intriguing conceit—fool you. The Amateurs might be good for a few laughs, but is far more often puerile and unfunny. And don't even think about watching this for the T & A factor; this film is about as erotic as…well, not very erotic.
Guilty of peddling smut that is both unfunny and unerotic.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
• Commentary with Jeff Bridges, Director Michael Traeger, and Producer Aaron Ryder
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