There's a stifling whiff of conventionality at the core of "The Fluffer," lethal for a movie that wants to deal realistically with any sexual topic. A fluffer, for those who don't know, is the low man (or woman) at the porn shoot, their job being to fellate the male talent (short of orgasm) and render them fully erect for their scenes. It's the job that the movie's young protagonist Sean (Michael Cunio) falls into inadvertently after only a few weeks in L.A.
Sean goes West hoping to get into the movies, behind the scenes. One night he rents "Citizen Kane" at his video store only to find, when he gets home, that he's mistakenly rented "Citizen Cum." Sean becomes infatuated with the movie's star Johnny Rebel (Scott Gurney) and goes looking for work at the porn company where Johnny is under contract. He gets work as a cameraman but he's so taken with Johnny that when the stud needs a little help getting ready for a scene, he's happy to oblige.
Part of the trouble with "The Fluffer," directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash West from a script by the latter, is that it hasn't decided whether it wants to be a raunchy comedy or a drama about obsession with movie images. And though the movie is competently made, Glatzer and West are very bad at mixing -- or shifting -- moods. The poster for Andre Techine's unbearably sensitive gay drama "Wild Reeds" that adorns the wall of Sean's crummy apartment marks him as a sensitive cinephile, as does the mile-a-minute monologue he delivers on the obsessive themes of "Vertigo" at an industry party when he's wired on crystal meth.
These references would seem to suggest that the filmmakers were trying to make a film about how easy it is to become seduced by movie images, to let those images replace the reality in front of you. Johnny Rebel, the object of Sean's adoring lust, isn't even gay. He's what the industry calls "gay for pay," a performer who has found that men can make more money in gay porn than in straight porn (where the women are the big earners), and who asserts his straightness by working strictly as a "top" (that is to say, a fucker instead of a fuckee, a recipient of oral sex but not a giver). He's happy to use Sean's services, and to be turned on by having Sean tell him how much he adores his body, but so self-absorbed he doesn't notice that the young man is in love with him.
But the idea of a young gay Candide loose in porn-land seems such a natural for raunchy comedy that the movie feels like one long missed opportunity. The jokes that are here -- about the inadequacy of porn-film dialogue and story -- are tired, tired material. (The exception is a club scenes where gay porn director Chi Chi Larue leads a spirited rendition of the Runaways' sleaze-rock perennial "Cherry Bomb.")
And no matter what its intentions, a film about obsession can't go very deep when the leads are so uninteresting. Michael Cunio's Sean has the thick look of a sensitive, corn-fed lunkhead (he's like the runt of the same litter that produced Ryan Philippe) and Scott Gurney's Johnny has the blank, narcissism of any number of interchangeable gay porn studs. He calls to mind the description of a porn star that someone gave Susan Faludi in an article on the industry a few years back, "a life-support system for a penis." (Not that the current crop of straight porn studs are that much more appealing. John Leslie -- couldn't you at least work in front of the camera once in a while any more?) The one man in the cast who does project a personality is Robert Walden (you may remember him as the hotshot reporter on "Lou Grant") as a performer turned director. With his gray hair and paunch, an earring and Hawaiian shirts concessions to his lost hipness, Walden is completely believable as an aged version of the Jewish-jock studs of porn's golden age, performers like Richard Pacheco and Paul Thomas.
The women fare much better here, Adina Porter who brings a nice, brittleness to the role of Silver, a lesbian who works behind the scenes because she's into gay porn, and Roxanne Day as Johnny's stripper girlfriend Babylon. Day has one of those tough-vulnerable faces that reveal exactly what each of life's indignities cost her. I kept wishing the movie would dump the blank studs and stick with her.
For a movie about porn, "The Fluffer" is awfully coy about sex. To get the film into theaters, the filmmakers couldn't show hardcore sex, but it's hardly adequate that at the crucial moment when Sean agrees to fluff Johnny he merely drops below the camera frame. What's left is what you see in "cable" versions of porn movies, those endless, boring close-ups of the star throwing his head back in simulated ecstasy. You're conscious of how the scenes have been blocked to avoid showing us the sex, and the one jarring penis shot seems like, uh, a bone thrown to the audience. (I'm only human. Just consider all the other bad puns I could have made by now.) And the scenes showing Babylon at work take place in some remarkable new version of a strip club where the women keep their clothes on. It's understandable that perhaps the performers didn't want to engage in actual sex, but that reticence becomes a detriment when dealing with a subject like this.
"Boogie Nights" is the standard against which any film about the porn industry will be measured. And what some reviewers criticized as conventional about that film -- its portrait of porn performers and filmmakers forming an extended, dysfunctional family -- was, to my mind, very unconventional. It was a decisive step away from the "chamber of horrors" clichés that have characterized fictional treatments of porn (and which still dominate TV cop shows and, regrettably, crime fiction). But the melodrama into which "The Fluffer" descends -- Johnny's girl getting pregnant, Johnny's crystal meth addiction, a murder -- feel like all the usual warnings about the evils of porn. The movie shies away from the truth of the line spoken by Silver: "People get fucked up working at K-Mart. People get fucked up working in Hollywood. It's called the adult film industry. If you're going to work in it, you'd better be an adult."