The Amateurs

[4 March 2008]

By J.M. Suarez

Originally released in 2005 under the name The Moguls, The Amateurs is a film about a small town that bands together to make the first completely amateur full-length adult movie.  Led by Andy Sargentee (Jeff Bridges), an aimless, divorced father going through a midlife crisis, the town enthusiastically begins the task of putting this movie together. 

Sargentee is positive that making this movie will be his great achievement in life and the fact that no one seems too surprised by this development, is at the heart of the film’s originality.  As he announces his idea to his friends, as well as enlists their help, the most interesting aspect of The Amateurs is revealed: nobody seems to take any real offense to the prospect of being involved in pornography. 

Much of the comedy comes from the almost innocent approach the town takes to making a pornographic film.  There is nothing gratuitous or salacious, or even very sexual, in the entire process.  In fact, Sargentee and his friends see this solely as an opportunity to make money and there is little to no consideration beyond that. 

The Amateurs boasts an impressive cast of supporting players that includes Joe Pantoliano, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, and Patrick Fugit as Sargentee’s filmmaking partners; as well as Glenne Headley, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Lauren Graham.  Unfortunately, with a cast this large (and this does not include some of the even smaller roles) certain characters receive less than three-dimensional treatments. 

Pantoliano and Blake Nelson are especially good in their roles as Some Idiot and Barney, respectively.  Some Idiot, the nickname for Pantoliano’s character, is especially apt, as he assigns himself to be the writer/director of the project.  His script includes ludicrous situations and high budget effects that are quickly dispensed with. 

Barney receives a more well-rounded characterization, as the movie also focuses on his long-standing, unrequited love for Headley’s Helen.  Fichtner is especially good as Otis, the one person in town who seems to have some grasp on the ‘adultness’ of an adult film.  His enthusiasm and desperation make for one of the funniest and most sympathetic characters. 

That is not to say that the rest of the characters are unsympathetic, rather, they’re less fully realized.  Moose (Danson), the closet homosexual who goes to ridiculous lengths to portray himself as a ladies man, is probably the only characterization that tends towards the cartoonish.  In fact, the scene in which he comes “out” to the group is only as effective as it is because of the easy acceptance and support of the rest of his friends, rather than Danson’s somewhat clownish portrayal.

Unfortunately, other casualties of minimal characterization include the women in the film.  To be fair, there is some attempt at giving them some background and context, but it still is not enough.  Thelma (Tripplehorn), Sargentee’s ex-wife, has custody of their son and is now married to the very wealthy Howard (Steven Weber).  Peggy (Graham), initially considered to be in the film, becomes Sargentee’s love interest.  Repeatedly stood up by her dates in the town bar, Helen is given the fullest treatment of all the women. 

Her disillusionment leads her to take a part in the film, one that is never seen in public, as Barney destroys the reel where she appears.  Although a pornographic movie does finally end up being made, a bar brawl and a new idea from Sargentee come together to produce an unexpected result. 

It should also be mentioned that there are numerous allusions to the films of Frank Capra, not only in the names of characters, but also in establishments such as the Gower’s video store, and the name of the town, Butterface Falls.  The Amateurs has a great deal of potential, but like many of the characterizations in the film, it is not fully realized. 

The concept of juxtaposing the seedy world of pornography with the enthusiastic naiveté of a small town is one that writer/director Michael Traeger says allowed him to ultimately make a film about “nice people”.  Much like Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life takes a story of attempted suicide and makes it a parable on the life-affirming powers of love and friendship, The Amateurs attempts to take the topic of pornography to make a similar statement, but unfortunately, it falls just short of success. 

The DVD release contains commentary by Traeger, Bridges, and producer Aaron Ryder; a behind-the-scenes featurette; another featurette on the photograph book Bridges put together on the film with narration by Bridges, along with Traeger and Ryder; and the original theatrical trailer.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-amateurs/