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Movie Review

'The Fluffer' Finds Honesty and Depth in a Shallow Business

January 18, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Fluffer" begins as the light satire on the gay porn industry its title suggests, but then develops parallel stories of thwarted love and ultimately emerges as a coming-of-age odyssey of notable substance and honesty. That it is a fine example of modest-budget filmmaking, boasting first-rate acting, writing and directing, is not all that surprising.

That's because it is co-directed by Richard Glatzer, whose 1994 debut feature "Grief" made hilarious use of his experiences as producer of "Divorce Court." Glatzer took us into the crazed world of the writers for a lurid daytime courtroom TV show yet took his people seriously amid much laughter. By the same token, "The Fluffer's" writer and co-director, Wash West, researched the world of gay porn so thoroughly that he ended up making some adult videos himself.

The film's protagonist, Sean (Michael Cunio), arrives in Hollywood determined to break into the film industry, much like countless other film students before him.

However, in an era of runaway production, veterans as well as newcomers are taking crew jobs on porn productions to pay the rent or gain experience. An attractive enough twentysomething gay man, Sean gets a job at Men of Janus Productions, ostensibly as a video cameraman, but he is expected to do anything he's told to--including acting as a "fluffer" for the company's mega-star, Johnny Rebel (Scott Gurney), physically getting him into the mood to perform for the camera.

The naive Sean is taken aback because the porn star has long been the man of his dreams. Sean instantly falls for Johnny, who possesses a magnificent physique, strong-jawed handsomeness and an easygoing personality.

Alas, Johnny's popularity has peaked, he's into drugs and his longtime relationship with a beautiful aspiring actress, Julie (Roxanne Day), who works at a Reseda strip club, is becoming increasingly strained under the pressure of both partners working in the sex industry.

Johnny, whose real name is Mikey, is one of many so-called "gay-for-pay" porn stars who make gay pictures because they pay men better than straight porn does. Mikey is a nice guy who has traded solely on his looks, and while they haven't as yet deteriorated, he has never developed any apparent skills outside sex and is understandably terrified about his waning popularity. Drugs are making him unreliable and paranoid, and he sees hustling as his only alternative.

As Mikey begins his downward spiral, Julie, whose nom de strip is Babylon, is forced to reassess their relationship, despite their underlying mutual love and her none-too-successful bid to become a working actress.

Through the unsparing way in which the stories of these three young people play out, Sean is confronted with his lack of self-acceptance as a gay man stemming from his traumatic introduction to sex as a child. Of the three, Mikey, for all his muscles and Greek-god looks, is the most vulnerable, the most likely to lose his way. He's not stupid by any means, but neither is he very perceptive or capable of the same honest self-appraisal as Julie and Sean. It's possible that there is a degree of confusion in his sexual orientation that he may never be prepared to examine.

Gurney is so aptly cast as the man of a zillion sexual fantasies that it may be easy to overlook his insightful portrayal of the conflicted, constitutionally immature Mikey.

Gurney is a talented actor, not a hunk who's been cast merely for his appearance. Day is so lovely and gifted that she deserves the breaks that have eluded Julie, and Cunio is appealing as a young man attempting to find his way through the painful throes of self-discovery.

Glatzer and West have surrounded their young actors with an array of familiar, always-impressive veterans, and Robert Walden, Taylor Negron, Richard Riehle and Tim Bagley are the humorous but tough seen-it-all types who run Men of Janus. Adina Porter is their secretary, the wry Silver, the film's true realist who warns Sean that when it comes to desire, "it's the distance that gets you hooked."

Deborah Harry is spot-on as the shrewd but compassionate manager of the strip club where Julie works. Josh Holland is a personable young photographer attracted to Sean, to little avail. Among other stalwarts are Mickey Cottrell and Guinevere Turner.

While the film depicts little sex, straight or gay, it has appearances by many notables of the porn industry, among them director Chi Chi La Rue and stars Ron Jeremy and Cole Tucker.

As character-driven as "The Fluffer" is, it unfolds in a graceful, easy flow, thanks to the skills of cinematographer Mark Putnam and editor John Binninger. Although "The Fluffer's" most obvious appeal is to gay men, its perspective transcends sexual orientation.

*

Unrated. Times guidelines: blunt sexual language but virtually no sex, complex adult themes and situations.

'The Fluffer'

Michael Cunio...Sean

Scott Gurney...Mikey/Johnny Rebel

Roxanne Day...Julie/Babylon

Deborah Harry...Marcella

A First Run Features and TLA Releasing presentation. Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash West. Producers John Sylla, Victoria Robinson. Executive producer Rose Kuo. Screenplay Wash West. Cinematographer Mark Putnam. Editor John Binninger. Music the Bowling Green. Costumes Gitte Meldgaard. Production designer Devorah Herbert. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue, (323) 655-4010; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and the Art Theatre, 2025 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 438-5435.

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