Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em. Dito Montiel’s disarmingly sweet comedy The Clapper is about a man who not only has greatness thrust upon him, but is desperate to avoid greatness altogether.
Ed Helms is Eddie Krumble, a quiet little man who makes his living playing an audience member for infomercials, alongside his best friend Chris (Tracy Morgan) and a host of other oddballs. Eddie and Chris fill seats, clap, laugh, and ask those rote questions that no one ever doubted were scripted. And Eddie is pretty comfortable in that life – he has a sweet flirtation with Judy (Amanda Seyfried), a girl who works at a gas station and whom Eddie visits daily, just to see her. While this might not be the life that everyone dreams of, Eddie muddles along, if not quite happily then at least with increasing contentment. That all changes though when a late night host uses Eddie’s image in a bit about infomercials and makes him into an overnight sensation known as “The Clapper.” Suddenly, Eddie is being pursued by producers, movie cameras and people on the streets who recognize his face. But Eddie doesn’t want fame; he really just wants to be left alone.
The Clapper takes the Hollywood trope of the regular person turned star and sets it against the contemporary backdrop of YouTube and Instagram, when anyone can be a celebrity and few actually get paid for it. Eddie just wants anonymity, but the very fact of having appeared in infomercials suddenly makes him fodder for jokes and YouTube compilations, while the producers of the late night show continue to pursue him and everyone connected to him as part of an apparently endless joke. What’s at first humorous becomes increasingly predatory as the producers seek out “The Clapper” in what, in any other circumstances, would be stalking.
The Clapper soon becomes a sharp-edged satire about fame, and the butt of the joke here is not Eddie, but the industry and the audience that exploit people like him for a few cheap laughs. As Eddie’s unwanted celebrity increasingly invades his life, he begins to lose the little contentment he had. There are moments of exceptional satiric clarity, as when Eddie demands payment from the show that keeps using his image, only to be told that if he were to come on the show he would be paid in “exposure.” But Montiel is a better writer and director than to simply let the film rest on such bald statements – he rather uses those moments to clearly express his meaning, and then shifts the focus back to the wonderfully human Eddie, who is far more than just a vehicle for satire.
Helms turns in a wonderfully sweet and genuine performance here, his exasperation with unwanted fame evident in every line of his face and every verbal tick. It’s easy to identify with Eddie and easier to sympathize with him, as he fumbles through asking Judy out on a date or flirts with her through the glass screen of her post at the gas station. Eddie is a nice guy, without pretense and without self-awareness, a truly decent human being exploited by people who neither know nor care about his privacy or his life.
Set opposite Helms are Seyfried and Morgan, both of whom turn in surprising and nuanced performances. Seyfried is rapidly turning into one of our finest young actresses, and Judy’s romance with Eddie is both a little odd and completely heartfelt – a sometimes difficult combination to pull off. Her beauty is subdued here, as is her youth – she truly likes Eddie, likes being around him, and even likes her odd job sitting behind a gas station screen. Like him, she wants a certain degree of anonymity, avoiding the pressure of social media and even television in favor of just watching and interacting with other people. Morgan is likewise remarkably subdued as Eddie’s somewhat dimwitted friend Chris, proving that he can pull off sweetness and likability without falling into caricature.
There’s little to complain about with The Clapper. It’s a well-put-together film, sentimental without becoming maudlin, satiric without falling into parody or, more dangerously, asking the audience to laugh at people we’ve come to care about. The moments of uncomfortable humor serve to underscore the human drama being played out, and never are the main characters the butt of the jokes. The entire film has a tinge of melancholy about it that more once brought a tear to my eye.
As well as a satire on the cruelty of fame and contemporary obsession with sudden celebrity, The Clapper is a sweet love story, and a tale about friendship among strange and decent human beings. Montiel has long been an interesting force in Hollywood, and here he outdoes himself. The film’s bite is worse than its bark, in fact, as it forces its viewers to question those things that we’ve laughed at, the cruelty that has been permitted in the name of entertainment. The Clapper will stick with you long after the credits roll.
The Clapper is a sharp combination of sweet romance and biting satire on the cruelties committed in the name of entertainment.