Tyro writer-director Michael Traeger constructs a wobbly platform for his actors to play on in "The Moguls," an erratic comedy about small-town losers who make an amateur porn feature. Premise is funny to consider but grows more mirthless by the minute as it's actually worked out on screen.

Having assembled an exceptional cast led by an affable Jeff Bridges, tyro writer-director Michael Traeger constructs a wobbly platform for his actors to play on in “The Moguls,” an erratic comedy about small-town losers who make an amateur porn feature. Premise is funny to consider but grows more mirthless by the minute as it’s actually worked out on screen. Sheer amount of thesp power will make the film difficult for distribs to dismiss out of hand, but it remains an extremely tough theatrical sell, though a definite money shot in vid and cable.

Easygoing narration by Bridges’ failed breadwinner-husband Andy Sargentee sets the pattern: Chummy and enjoyable in small doses, voiceover, unfortunately, is used as a substitute for more sophisticated storytelling. A goofy prelude has Andy stewing in the local watering hole as his pals watch him think, until he bursts forth with the dubious inspiration to make a porn pic.

Traeger’s script has a tendency to simply present characters (via Andy’s verbal descriptions) and not explain their motivations, so why Andy’s marginal movie idea is really attractive to his friends is anyone’s guess. There’s only the slightest indication that the town folk have had much viewing experience with triple X fare, but Andy is savvy enough to argue that there’s a real market for the kind of amateur porn this town can muster.

Hired as d.p. is young vid store clerk and video shutterbug Emmett (Patrick Fugit), while the group’s dim bulb, awkwardly nicknamed Some Idiot (Joe Pantoliano), insists on being writer-director. Andy is producer, needing level-headed pal Barney (Tim Blake Nelson) as his fellow producer.

Barfly Otis (William Fichtner) has a funny scene pleading to Andy that he should be the guy on the set hired to do nothing, since every set seems to have one. Moose (Ted Danson), who everyone knows is gay, ends up being cast in a hetero role in porno, to disastrous results.

“The Moguls” juggles a loving, caring sensibility — best shown in scenes with Bridges and divorced wife Thelma (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and their son Billy (Alex D. Linz), and later, in warm exchanges between Bridges and the extremely enjoyable Lauren Graham as an ex-Playboy bunny — with a seamy side that pushes below-the-belt jokes to unfunny limits. Only once in awhile are ongoing production discussions about “butt scenes” and “carpet munching” truly witty, and an extended set of scenes involving Andy with an African American guy named Homer (Isaiah Washington) stumbles into racial minefields.

A sadder element here is how many women in the cast–Glenn Headly, Judy Greer, Valerie Perrine–have roles that aren’t much better than those found in actual porn films.

Anyone with the slightest idea of how a movie is made will be stunned by a third act switch that defies good sense, with a turn of events intended as an underdog’s fantasy come true but which plainly defy credibility on any level.

Assuming major storytelling and acting duties, Bridges is just a bit too kick-back to give Andy the force of a comically charming movie hero. Yet he, Nelson and Danson do a clinic on reaction shots, displaying ace timing. Pantoliano has a thanklessly dumb-dumb role, and without a defined character of any sort, Fichtner gets through on solid instincts.

Traeger directs with an excess of neck-up shots and little imagination. Denis Maloney’s lensing employs flashing technique that recalls the look of early ’70s pics in which Bridges made his mark (“Fat City,” “Cutter’s Way”), but composer Nic. TenBroek simply writes too much music.

The Moguls

U.S.-U.K.

Production

A Qwerty Films presentation of an N1 European Film Produktions/Raygun production. (International sales: Element X, London.) Produced by Aaron Ryder. Executive producer, Malcom Ritchie, Jill Tandy, Michael Kuhn. Co-producer, Laura Greenlee. Directed, written by Michael Traeger.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Denis Maloney; editor, Raul Davalos; music, Nic. Tenbroek ; music supervisor, Larry Marks; production designer, Bob Ziembicki; art director, Brandee Dell'Aringa; set decorator, Bob Kesinger; costume designer, Ernesto Martinez; sound (Dolby Digital), Whit Norris; supervising sound editor, Sandy Gendler; supervising stunt coordinator, Gary Turner; line producer, Laura Greenlee; associate producer, Colleen Woodcock; supervising producer, Mark Wolfe; assistant director, John O'Rourke; casting, Nancy Nayor-Battino. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (Closing Night), Feb. 6, 2005. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Andy Sargentee - Jeff Bridges Moose - Ted Danson Otis - William Fichtner Emmett - Patrick Fugit Barney - Tim Blake Nelson Some Idiot - Joe Pantoliano Helen - Glenne Headly Peggy - Lauren Graham Thelma - Jeanne Tripplehorn Homer - Isaiah Washington V - Valerie Perrine
With: Eileen Brennan, John Hawkes, Brad Henke, Steven Weber, Alex D. Linz, Judy Greer, Troy Brenna.
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