Bart Simpson supposedly provided the definitive answer to the zen parable, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” back in the 1990s. But “The Clapper,” not sure if it takes place in 2018 or 1818, offers an alternative solution: We’re only clapping with one hand because we’re too busy yawning with the other throughout this milquetoast Netflix serving.
Your ability to appreciate “The Clapper” will depend upon how many nights you spent in an early AM, Mountain Dew-induced haze, eating stale grocery store cookies with your left hand, while using your right to deduce the total cost of four monthly payments of $20 (plus shipping and handling) to see if you could afford the the NutriBullet blender. Infomercials, let alone the early morning hypnotizing trance they provided, aren’t really a thing anymore in 2018, with America’s sleepless citizens now finding dreary refuge by streaming old episodes of “Frasier” and “Six Feet Under.”
This puts “The Clapper” in a bewildering state of existence from the get-go: It supposedly takes place in our modern media times, but relies on the nostalgia of a form of content that is no longer prevalent to propel its story, like buying an electric car but feeling sentimental about your old friends at Shell and Amoco. Ed Helms plays Eddie Krumble, a 40-something, tech-unsavvy Angeleno who pays his landline bill through audience appearances on infomercials. That in itself is intriguing, as there are actually people in Los Angeles who get by as professional extras, crediting their student loans through four seconds of screentime in four-lettered shows like “Glee” and “NCIS.” As these extras hope to claw their way to above-the-line territory someday, Eddie’s informercial employment casts him in the darkest depths of entertainment, where not even the most putrid showbiz slime would dare do business.
That’s why Eddie is dismayed to learn he’s been “discovered” as a perennial extra by “The Jayme Stillerman Show,” a dreary, late-night talk rag sans James Corden’s sense of glee. The show is desperate to get Eddie onstage and make a fool out of him, with the constant attention damaging the lives of his best info bro Chris (Tracy Morgan) and his new lover, the earnest, sheepish gas station clerk Judy (Amanda Seyfried.) Eddie gets haggled by Hollywood lurkers, dodges shots of verbal love from fan drive-bys, until he relents and ends up appearing on the show.
For the troubles of Eddie’s viral fame to appear legitimate, the film relies on its characters’ unconvincing lack of access to technology. We can put it past Eddie that he doesn’t own a cell-phone nor computer, but the fact that he hasn’t had much experience in the art of the Google search in his 40+ years immediately 404’s our suspension of disbelief. Judy’s reasoning for not owning a TV is sound: Her old one broke, and she really doesn’t have the money or desire to replace it. But it feels asinine that she is completely unaware she’s become a viral sensation, as if not a single show fan would beg for a selfie on the street, or that she didn’t ever catch a glimpse of herself in the reflection of a Starbucks’ customer’s laptop.
Perhaps this was writer/director Dito Montiel’s intent, as Eddie and Judy, in their nobleness and naivety, are very much like the easily-manipulated viewers of infomercial commercials, those sanguine, sham-wowed souls so blissfully unaware that Billy Blanks can be bought for a fraction of the price in the frightening, unfamiliar Amazon jungle. The title itself is a clever nod to one of the earliest “As Seen On TV” items, “The Clapper” nighttime lamp. But the over-reliance on that naivety shoots “The Clapper” dead in its tracks. Helms gets stuck in his nice guy shtick, while Seyfried still conjures earnest motions but none that are complex. Chris is the most believable character, making great use of Morgan’s gifted versatility as a verbal and physical comedian. As “The Clapper” opens our eyes to an oft-forgotten segment of showbiz, it’s one we forget to applaud when it takes its bow.