By Peter Debruge
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) – A curious thing has happened to indie movies since the year 2000. In the ’90s, practically all the heroes were hit men. Now, they hold some of the quirkiest jobs imaginable — baking specialty pies (“Waitress”), building bathtubs (“The Voices”), writing greeting-card poetry (“500 Days of Summer”), etc. — in movies where a quirky profession serves as a stand-in for an actual personality.
The title character in Dito Montiel’s “The Clapper” takes the cake: He makes a living as a professional audience member, popping up in countless infomercials too “ooh” and “aah” and occasionally ask questions like, “Are you trying to tell me with no money down I can get a house?” Unlike the hundreds of would-be actors who move to Los Angeles every year with dreams of becoming stars, Eddie Krumble (Ed Helms) and best friend Chris (Tracy Morgan) are content to be invisible, doing their best to look nondescript, while mixing up their appearance with silly hats and stick-on facial hair.
It’s a funny kind of job, and one that plenty of blue-collar Americans would kill for, but it’s not enough to hang a movie on — not by a long shot. Within 10 minutes, writer-director Montiel (best known for “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” here adapting his second book, “Eddie Krumble Is the Clapper”) has exhausted the novelty, which he tries to redirect into a 100% uninteresting romance between Eddie and a mousy blonde girl named Judy (Amanda Seyfried). Judy works the booth at his neighborhood gas station, where he buys $5 at a time, partly because he doesn’t earn enough to fill the tank, but mostly because he wants an excuse to flirt with this young lady (whose own quirk involves adopting a one-horned goat and other weird animals from the local animal shelter).
Eddie’s job is so unexceptional to himself that he hasn’t even bothered to tell Judy what he does — which would be fine, if not for the bizarre coincidence that late-night television host Jayme Stillerman (Russell Peters) does a segment on this peculiar group of showbiz bottom feeders, identifying Eddie’s face in half a dozen different infomercials. Suddenly, Eddie finds himself at the center of a mini pop-culture craze, as billboards and TV spots lift him out of obscurity to the point that he’s suddenly being recognized by complete strangers on the street.
If any of this sounds amusing, you might like “The Clapper.” The movie is not entirely without charm — although it’s safe to say, it’s mostly without charm. In fact, the movie has so little charm to offer that it borders on insipid, a bland, by-the-numbers romantic comedy that has no qualms about stealing good ideas from other movies and dumbing them down here (like the cue card scene from “Love Actually,” or a climactic confession that the TV-free Judy watches on the monitors at a different gas station from the one where she worked).
What’s left is a shockingly lame satire about the vagaries of modern fame with strange ideas about how badly American audiences might really like to know about the identity of the not-very-good actors who earn a living appearing in infomercials (hint: they’re one step above the old guy who dresses as Spider-Man on Hollywood Blvd.). In theory, this basic miscalculation explains the movie’s very existence, since Montiel and his investors clearly believe that moviegoers want to see a film about this kind of guy.
More likely, it’s the cast that will attract them, as there are some genuine comic talents in this ensemble — although they’ve been directed in such a way that they seem (what’s the best euphemism?) … touched. The typically goofy-looking Helms comes across almost haggard, with pronounced bags under his eyes and a weirdly insecure grin that suggests a cornered badger baring his teeth. And while it’s nice to see Morgan back on screen, the improv genius is noticeably less spontaneous than before, resulting in a flatter-than-expected supporting turn (whereas he stole his scenes in “Fist Fight”). Someone should have instructed them that just because they’re playing bad actors, it doesn’t mean they have to give bad performances — although doing so gives actual infomercial hosts Wendy Braun, Billy Blanks, and the late Alan Thicke a chance to shine.
Montiel published his novel “Eddie Krumble Is the Clapper” in 2007, at a time when these odd-job indie comedies were in full swing (for example, Robin Williams had brought pathos to mall work in “One Hour Photo” just a few years earlier). Seeing as how Montiel directed Williams in one of his final screen performances, “Boulevard,” it’s not unreasonable to speculate how someone with his talent could have taken this exact screenplay and elevated it — especially the key scene in which Eddie, on live TV, reveals the pain that brought him to Los Angeles and professes his love for Judy. At that moment, in the hands of a better actor, “The Clapper” should inspire applause, but with this cast, it can muster little more than eye-rolls.