A strong ensemble cast spruces up a weak script in this trifle from writer-director Michael Traeger, a sort of Americanized version of “The Full Monty” with an inside-Hollywood twist. “The Amateurs”—which was originally called “The Moguls” when it was first shown at festivals nearly three years ago, before its release was so long delayed—features some amusing moments, but they’re sporadic at best, and it hardly makes the best use of its impressive roster of stars.
Jeff Bridges, taking on a persona so much larger-than-life that it even makes Lebowski seem puny, stars as Andy Sargentee, the chief eccentric in a small town coterie of chums who comes up with the idea of the group’s making a quickie porno flick as a financial prospect. He needs cash because he loses every job for being too honest, and because his ex-wife Thelma (Jeanne Tripplehorn) has remarried a very wealthy guy (Steven Weber) and he fears losing touch with his son Billy (Alex D. Linz). He enlists all his buds in the project—not only quiet video-store clerk Emmett (Patrick Fugit), who serves as video cameraman, and a doofus nicknamed Some Idiot (Joe Pantoliano), whom he allows to be the director—but helpful Barney (Tim Blake Nelson), loudmouth Otis (William Fichtner) and—most unfortunately—Moose (Ted Danson), a guy everyone knows is gay but who pretends to be a macho stereotype because he doesn’t realize that they’re all ready to accept him for who he really is.
The humor, such as it is, arises from Bridges’ manic prodding of his cohorts and the efforts of his crew to devise a script for the movie and then actually find volunteers to play in it. A funny bit occasionally surfaces, but for the most part the level of inspiration is pretty low, and one’s left with the sight of a bunch of talented actors desperately trying to make something of very little. Danton suffers most (a scene in which he tries to prove his masculinity by taking a part in the picture is probably the nadir of the whole enterprise), but even Bridges overplays the laid-back buffoonery. Fugit, who’s largely silently reactive, is kind of an oasis among the others, who all try a mite too hard.
The worst part of “The Amateurs,” though, is the last-act twist, which supposedly turns our heroes’ complete disaster into a surprise triumph. It’s meant to put a warm final face on things, but only emphasizes how the determination to end nice after toying with naughtiness doesn’t come off. The modesty of the picture from the technical perspective seems entirely appropriate, given the material.
In fact, “The Amateurs” resembles a movie akin to the one the characters make—not in content, of course, but in terms of seeming more successful as a communal love feast than as something that will provide much pleasure to a paying audience. It’s the little picture that, ultimately, doesn’t.