The man who made Problem Child, Beverly Hills Ninja and Brain Donors -- movies that 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 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 Hollywood's most pedestrian filmmakers -- every movie Dugan releases looks like something made by accident -- tosses yet another stink bomb into theaters for audiences to sniff over. It's as if the guy 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 are Algonquin Round Table wits offering up never-ending bons mots -- when not passing gas.
This time out, Dugan is peddling revenge fantasy as gross-out comedy: The title refers to the efforts of two buddies -- Jack Black's J.D. and Steve Zahn's Wayne -- to try 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, 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, even though 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, so they set out to separate them, going so far as to kidnap Judith (much of the movie reeks of a Ruthless People redo, 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 J.D. and Wayne 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 Greg DePaul and Hank Nelken conceived the film's premise while attending a friend's wedding -- at which, no kidding, the pal was marrying the wrong woman. Saving Silverman is their belated warning -- and their vengeance. Accordingly, Saving Silverman is about as misogynistic as an Eminem album: Judith's such an emasculating witch, 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 fiancé, "and I am his puppetmaster." 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 about the movie is that beneath the bile and bitchiness passing for laughs, there are occasional moments of 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 Plexiglas), and the three friends 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, likely recognizing that he's fading into the pop-culture shadows, even shows up as a campy version of himself; he speaks in song lyrics (when informed of Darren's predicament, he utters, "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 is 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 tokus, 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 blowjob. If you wanted to be kind, you might say Saving Silverman is just 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.
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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 while you'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 bounce 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 Black's 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 a single man to lift a sunken car off the bottom of a lake.