Lump of Coal

Silverman's bitter "comedy" is enough to make you turn off your heartlight

The man who made Problem Child, Beverly Hills Ninja, and Brain Donors--which are to humor what Robert Downey Jr. is to clean living--has, perhaps all too explicably, become Hollywood's most coveted and celebrated comedic director. "From the director of Big Daddy"--so blares the trailer for Saving Silverman, touting Dennis Dugan if not by name then by, ahem, reputation, as though he were the man who brought you Citizen Kane. Standards have slipped so low that we're now supposed to be excited when one of cinema's most pedestrian filmmakers--every movie Dugan releases looks like something made on accident--tosses yet another stink bomb into theaters for audiences to sniff over. It's as if Dugan exists in an alternate dimension, a Bizarro universe where Carrot Top and Yahoo Serious are box-office draws and Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and David Spade sit around the Algonquin Round Table tossing around bon mots--when not passing gas.

This time out, Dugan's peddling revenge-fantasy as gross-out comedy: The title refers to two buddies--Jack Black's J.D. and Steve Zahn's Wayne--trying to save their pal Darren Silverman (American Pie's Jason Biggs) from marrying a heartless, control-freak psychiatrist named Judith (Amanda Peet). Darren, a loser since high school (the man literally trips his way through life), can't believe his luck when so beautiful a woman agrees to go out with him; he's willing to be Judith's slave in exchange for the opportunity to share her bed, regardless of the fact she won't even touch him. J.D. and Wayne realize Darren's made a horrible mistake around the time Judith refuses to partake of the beer bong and set out to separate them, going so far as to kidnap Judith (much of the movie reeks of a Ruthless Peopleredo, with Peet chained down in the basement). Their old high-school coach (R. Lee Ermey, still sporting a full metal jacket) proposes they "off the bitch," but Wayne and J.D. are too cowardly--and too lazy. They only want Judith out of the way so Darren can fall for his "one and only love" from high school, Sandy (Amanda Detmer, bright and shiny compared to Peet's toothy gloom), who's only days away from taking her final vows as a nun.

According to the press notes, screenwriters Hank Nelken and Greg DePaul conceived the film's premise while attending a friend's wedding--at which, no kidding, the pal was marrying the wrong woman. Saving Silvermanis their belated warning--and their vengeance. Accordingly, Saving Silvermanis about as misogynistic as an Eminem album: Judith's such an emasculating bitch the only thing she doesn't do is cut off Darren's testicles and wear them as earrings. She's at once the hottest woman around (only porn and Erin Brockovich reveal so much cleavage) and the coldest: "He's my puppet," she says of her would-be fiance, "and I am his puppet master." Her idea of intimacy is forcing Darren to go down on her for hours, after which she tosses him a nudie mag and a bottle of lotion--his "masturbation privileges," she sneers, before threatening to revoke even that small pleasure if Darren doesn't disown his two pals.

What's most frustrating is that beneath the bile and bitchiness passing for laughs, there are occasional moments of rather inspired brilliance: the handful of flashback scenes that recall Airplane's flights of lunacy (one involves a trapeze accident), Jack Black's promotion from sidekick to star, and the use of Neil Diamond as both cultural icon and kitsch totem. J.D., Wayne, and Darren share an abnormal affection for Diamond: J.D. and Wayne live in a ramshackle house that also serves as their self-proclaimed Hall of Neil (complete with spangled shirt encased in Plexiglass), and the three pals don their own shiny togs and thick wigs to perform on street corners as Diamonds in the Rough, perhaps the world's only all-Neil cover band. Diamond, possibly recognizing that he's fading into the pop-culture shadows, even shows up as a camped-up version of himself; he speaks in song lyrics (when informed of Darren's predicament, he can only utter, "Love on the rocks? Ain't no surprise"), but he's so in on the joke he never looks like a fool. Like William Shatner, perhaps, Diamond knows that the only way to remain "relevant" is to become a punch line.

But the film's so mean-spirited and juvenile that Diamond's appearance serves only as a relief; finally, here's something to laugh at without feeling the need to shower later. As if to one-up the Farrellys and American Pie's Paul Weitz, Dugan and his screenwriters have tossed in enough sicko humor to satisfy the most stunted third-grader: shots of an old man's puckered ass, footage of silicone being slipped into Darren's sliced-open tuchus, Ermey's line about how all women want is "man juice," Jack Black's ass crack, Steve Zahn's futile attempt at giving himself a blow job, and Ermey's evacuating his bowels on the front lawn. The kind might say Saving Silvermanis but a tad anal-retentive. Then again, this is a movie in which a girl chooses Jason Biggs over God, so it's pretty much guaranteed its own permanent screen in hell's multiplex.

Were it not for the presence of Black, who swipes any scene in which he shows his elastic mug, Saving Silverman would be the kind of comedy you forget whileyou're watching it. As J.D., one third of this trio of childhood pals who grow older without ever actually growing up, Black is both Harpo Marx and John Belushi--hysterical when silent, amusing when roaring. (Like Belushi in Animal House, Black doesn't walk so much as he bounces from place to place.) The movie's smart enough, at least, to make some use of Black, who's never tried harder to be more likable--which is actually one of the film's biggest flaws; no one this funny should have to strain for laughs. Here, he gets to play both an aspiring musician who's half as good as he thinks he is (recalling Black's role in faux-folk duo Tenacious D) and the loudmouth who lacks internal monologue (J.D. is, frustratingly, a dumbed-down, slobbed-out version of his record-store clerk in High Fidelity). But not even Black, possessor of the world's most devilish smirk, can elevate such mundane material. It's like asking one man to lift a sunken car off the bottom of a lake.

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