'The Clapper': Film Review

Intermittently charming, but a definite underachiever.

Ed Helms, Amanda Seyfried and Tracy Morgan star in the first comedy from 'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints' writer-director Dito Montiel.

Contrary to the struggles of many mainstream movie protagonists, not everyone wants to be famous. Not everyone is yearning to realize their artistic/entrepreneurial/world-changing dreams. Some people just want to get by without hurting anyone in the process. That's the refreshing gist of Dito Montiel's The Clapper, a look at the blue-collar fringe beyond the Hollywood fringe — not the restaurant workers juggling auditions and casting calls, not the big-screen extras, but the seat-fillers who pretend to be enthusiastic audience members for infomercials and other excruciatingly bad TV fare.

Adapting his 2007 novel Eddie Krumble Is the Clapper, a comic spin on his personal experiences as a newcomer to Los Angeles, Montiel treats his story's happily unsung oddballs with sincere affection. He doesn't hold them up to ridicule, or insist that they snap out of their quirkiness and conform. But he doesn't quite know what to do with them. The book's slightly satirical edges have been left out, but so apparently have crucial elements of the screenplay, whose welcome sweetness devolves into narrative gaps and painfully awkward rom-com triumph. A trifecta of charming low-key performances by Ed Helms, Amanda Seyfried and Tracy Morgan keep the listing ship afloat far longer than anyone could expect.

Helms, who also produces, stars as Eddie Krumble, a contented member of the seat-fillers’ caste along with best friend Chris Plork (Morgan). (The characters’ names signal the level of humor that too much of the film relies on.) Eddie’s days are spent moving from one television studio to another to laugh, applaud and generally act interested in cheesy products and celebrity-hawked real estate (Alan Thicke, in one of his final screen appearances, plays himself as the frontman for Tranquil Estates). In the evenings, Eddie skedaddles to a gas station to flirt with the night clerk, Judy (Seyfried). Even through the glass of her booth and hampered by a badly broken speaker system, they kick up a few shyly smitten sparks, bonding over Brian Wilson’s sublime "Love and Mercy" and enjoying their shared weirdness. In an underdeveloped plot thread, they discuss her vague dreams of running an animal shelter for special-needs critters, and in an overdeveloped one, her boss (Greg Vrotsos) throws angry fits — signals of the narrative imbalance that plagues the film.

The crux of the action involves Eddie’s loss of his prized anonymity. Comparing footage from different infomercials, talk-show host Jayme Stillerman (Russell Peters), who’s one part Harvey Levin to two parts Jay Leno (Leno was the character in the book), sees through Eddie’s facial-hair variations. He turns him into a running gag that goes viral. Billboards spring up around town, asking, "Who is the Clapper?"

Eddie fears that the producer in charge of audience casting (Leah Remini) will blackball him from his main source of income, but beyond that Helms convincingly conveys how tormented he is by the attention, especially when Stillerman’s producers (Adam Levine and PJ Byrne, in a restrained Mutt and Jeff routine) are hell-bent on getting "the world's most famous audience member" on the show.

In a film where everyone — including a gas-station customer who wanders through the night in his underwear — is treated with dignity, if not necessarily depth, even the showbiz baddies turn out to be recognizably human and capable of compassion. But given the production’s feel for workaday Hollywood’s less glamorous stretches (among them Eddie’s style-free apartment), it’s especially disappointing when the narrative unravels into pure rom-com contrivance. At its most contrived, a clumsy climactic scene requires Brenda Vaccaro, in a role that’s wholly unnecessary to the story, to overdo it as Eddie’s overinvolved mother.

The early courtship scenes and the glimpses of non-A-list studio business are the film’s strengths. Montiel drops hints of the satire that might have been — particularly in Roger Guenveur Smith’s cameo as the "inspirational" author of such titles as I Am We and The Way, the Path, Take It! Like too much of the film, the skeptical glances at the culture of self-promotion are over before they get started.

Production companies: Fortitude International, Oriah Entertainment, Cedarvale Pictures, Schorr Pictures, Pacific Electric Picture Co., Goodforyou Films, in association with Living the Dream Films, Skitbags Entertainment, LTD Films, Kodiak Pictures
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Cast: Ed Helms, Amanda Seyfried, Tracy Morgan, Adam Levine, Russell Peters, Brenda Vaccaro, PJ Byrne, Leah Remini, Mickey Gooch Jr., Alan Thicke, Greg Vrotsos, Todd Giebenhain, James Ransone, Mark Cuban, Steven Randazzo, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rob Gronkowski

Director-screenwriter: Dito Montiel, based on the book Eddie Krumble Is the Clapper by Dito Montiel
Producers: Robin Schorr, Dito Montiel, Ed Helms, Mike Falbo, Alex Lebovici, Steve Ponce
Executive producers: Ray Bouderau, John M. Bennett, Mickey Gooch Jr., Maurice Fadida, Michael Bien
Director of photography: Michael Barrett
Production designer: Dan Butts
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Editor: Jake Pushinsky
Composers: David Wittman, Jimmy Haun
Casting director: Jennifer Ricchiazzi

Rated R, 90 minutes