Given the artificiality of celebrity and Hollywood, the idea of a manufactured laugh track and canned applause is a pretty clever metaphor for the emptiness of fame. But a loose concept is not a movie if it’s not carefully drawn, pondered and conceived. And the promise of such a potentially nifty little idea isn’t so much squandered in the hapless Tribeca indie “The Clapper” as barely explored. “The Clapper” runs about two sentences deep. “What if a nobody on the fringes of showbizness was thrust into the limelight and had to grapple with unwanted fame? What then?” And it’s astonishing how little the half-baked movie can do with this premise.

Bafflingly witless, “The Clapper” is an oblivious non-starter with myriad deficiencies. Artless and clueless at every turn, writer/director Dito Montiel’s inane movie is a one-note half-gag somehow stretched into a painful 90-minute movie. Such a pitiful picture, and the fact that it was made and paid for by someone, not only produces mean-spirited reviews, but questions your faith in the film industry. It’s that insipid.

Transforming what turns out to be a lightweight idea into a deeply contrived story, “The Clapper” centers around a professional paid audience member (Ed Helms) who becomes accidentally “discovered” by a popular late-night host so amused with his poor acting, he seeks to find him and have him appear on the show. He’s becomes a Jimmy Kimmel-esque TV meme/running gag, essentially. However, this sudden “fame” not only threatens to ruin the clapper’s career as a supposedly anonymous audience member appearing in infomercials, but also his burgeoning relationship with a sweet but naïve gas-attendant girl (Amanda Seyfried, who deserves so much better). Childlike might be the better word to describe the characters — everyone in “The Clapper” acts and behaves like a toddler with a very limited understanding of the way the world works.

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Nothing convinces in “The Clapper,” other than just how dimwitted the protagonists are. Meant to be sweet and a little slow, Helms and his best friend (played by Tracy Morgan) are so aggressively stupid and bewilderingly hopeless you begin to actively root against them. Worse, nothing about the charisma-free late-night talk-show host that’s supposed to catapult the slack-jawed Clapper to national stardom feels persuasive. The lackluster show and its unfunny host (comedian Russell Peters) are completely flat, and every scene with the studio audience is anemic and lifeless, much like the movie. The story of “The Clapper” isn’t especially implausible either, but none of its plot is remotely believable the way this story is cheaply told. In fact, the way the meet-cute relationship between Helms and Seyfried is tacked onto this story — it should, but doesn’t, bother to grapple with notions of fame and forced exposure — makes it feel like Montiel’s inept movie was actually trying to create a “aww, shucks, you sure are purrty” romantic comedy. Alas, none of it is particularly romantic, and the movie is painfully unfunny. Randomly, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 appears in a small role as one of the show’s TV producers, presumably because he was willing to show up in the movie.

Directed without distinction by Montiel, the only tolerable element of the movie is Seyfried despite there being nothing for her character to do except blink with her pretty stare and act as the romantic interest waiting around for the idiot to realize how special she is. It’s a testament to her acting that her simpleminded character still appears sweet and endearing even though she’s maybe not the sharpest tool in the shed either (especially when instantly enamored with Ed Helms’ character for no discernible reason).

A fellow audience member (I believe it was a film critic?) leaned over and said to me that the film was written in recovery from the abject failure of “Man Down,” Montiel’s last picture, which sold all of two tickets in the UK a few months back. They were joking, of course, but there was something to this quip beyond the fact that Montiel adapted his own novel — perhaps as some form of therapeutic healing. Because “The Clapper” feels like a movie born out of some kind of trauma the movie’s still trying to recover from, and that’s clearly impaired its judgement.

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Honestly, the first thought that comes to mind with “The Clapper” is novocaine. If you’ve ever been to the dentist and had your wisdom teeth pulled out, or sat in that room nervously awaiting your turn, you know and have witnessed the distinct sensation of novocaine after-effects. Patients stumble out of the room happily, oblivious to the bludgeoning of their mouths, the blood running down their chins, and filled with an amused false sense of confidence — you could take on the whole world if it weren’t for the fact you could barely fucking walk. While dentistry has nothing to do with “The Clapper” — other than the fact that watching it is like pulling teeth — it’s that kind of movie: shiny, happy, content with itself and without a clue that it’s suffering from a gaping head wound with its pants around its ankles.

Even with everyone clearly working at scale (production values aren’t exactly top-notch), “The Clapper” must have cost $1-2 million at least, and one can’t help but imagine a world where that money was better spent on a deserving voice that’s had trouble being heard over this third-rate bargain-bin effort.

This is sensitive territory for the festival, but Tribeca, not unlike Toronto, has often had an unfortunate reputation for picking extremely mediocre films just because there are many stars attached. Every festival is guilty of this method to attract audiences. But in the long run, these short-term gains do festivals no favors, remaining like a stain long after the spotlight has turned off. This is to say, “The Clapper” is a bit of an embarrassment to everyone involved.

It’s unkind to be this mean to a movie this inept: it’s kind of like kicking a puppy. But perhaps if one less movie like this is made, if a few more dollars can go to a more rewarding story — perhaps some inner-city kid can get his dream picture made — my unfortunate nastiness here will have done its job. Because “The Clapper,” banal to the core, is not worthy of applause, feigned, sincere or otherwise. [D-]

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