'The Assistants'

Insider Hollywood sendups tend to be biting -- or at least try to be -- but pic is a toothless affair.

Insider Hollywood sendups tend to be biting — or at least try to be — but “The Assistants” is a toothless affair. As its bland young protags pull an elaborate con to get bigwigs behind their movie project, pic emerges a straight let’s-put-on-show update glossed up with Biz Satire 101: Agents are pushy divas, stars are dimwits, etc. There’s no novelty or flair here to even briefly transcend overall predictability, suggesting that the logical next stop for Steve Morris’ feature (after its self-distribbed run starting Dec. 3 in Los Angeles) will be home-format sales.

Prologue has our narrator, natural wheeler-dealer Jack (Chris Conner), introducing his fellow protags as they happily labor on a USC film school shoot. “In a couple of months we’ll be running this town,” or so they think.

Three years later, those high hopes are fading. Tech guy Bill (Peter Douglas) is working construction; editor Alex (Tate Hanyok) is cutting porn. Others are now personal assistants to successful stereotypes: Aspiring producer Jack suffers the abuse of actual producer Gary (Joe Mantegna); thwarted director Sarah (Kathleen Early) baby-sits closeted, vacuous movie star Zack (Jonathan Bennett); would-be thesp Carl (Michael Grant Terry) is gofer for screamy second-tier agent Cassie (Reiko Aylesworth); and talented but unproduced screenwriter Ben (Aaron Himelstein) serves the whims of onetime starlet turned widowed Beverly Hills ditz Sandy (Jane Seymour).

A drunken prank snowballs when the gang’s fake coverage report on a nonexistent script falls into the hands of Gary, who declares he must have that property now. After collective “This is so crazy, it just … might … work!” discussion, Ben pens a real script in three days — signing it Harlan Keys, the reclusive author of a gritty ’70s drama Gary worships. Others get to work manipulating Cassie into wooing Carl for the lead role, and snagging Sandy as an investor.

This caper goes improbably smoothly until the arrival of Keys (Stacy Keach), whose current occupation as a garbage collector hasn’t prevented him noticing “his” new property being touted in the trades. “The Assistants'” own script saddles this grumpy sage with its chief wisdoms about Hollywood, namely, “They make you believe in something and then they break you with it.” Plus, “Life is like a sewer and what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

As if afraid of offending any real-life inspirations, Morris doesn’t really eke much fun out of his rather feebly caricatured industry targets. Nor do pic’s scrubbed, earnest protags make much impression. In the end, “The Assistants” isn’t even a defanged “Swimming With Sharks” so much as a non-musical “Fame,” with a maudlin, conventional take on the follow-your-dreams message at its core.

Pacing is brisk enough. Other packaging aspects, notably lensing and soundtrack choices, have a characterless, tube-ready feel. Trivia note: The script-within-a-script is called “Journey’s End,” a title jokily chosen because it’s so generic-sounding. No one on or offscreen seems to have realized it’s also the title of a famous 1928 play that’s been adapted numerous times to various media.

The Assistants

Production

A Team Effort Films presentation. Produced by Steve Morris, Mykel Denis, Karen P. Morris. Executive producers, Mark Morris, Susan Morris, Barbara Smith. Directed, written, edited by Steve Morris.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Aaron Torres; music, James S. Levine, Aaron R. Kaplan; music supervisors, Paul Stewart, Qiana Conley; production designer, Rebekah Bell; set decorators, Ashley Beveridge, Jon Martindale; costume designer, Julia Van Vliet; sound, Ted Philips; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Nathan Smith; assistant director, Jim McKinney; casting, Karen P. Morris, Jami Rudofsky. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Dec. 26, 2010. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Chris Conner, Aaron Himelstein, Kathleen Early, Michael Grant Terry, Tate Hanyok, Peter Douglas, Reiko Aylesworth, Jonathan Bennett, Stacy Keach, Jane Seymour, Joe Mantegna.

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