Saving Silverman (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The dumb, raunchy comedy is not a new genre - in one form or another, it's far older than cinema. (What else would one call Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales?) However, as far as the modern incarnation is concerned, its genesis can be traced back to the early '80s, when films like Porky's inexplicably packed theaters. A half-generation later, this kind of motion picture is bigger than ever, with seemingly every other weekend offering another opportunity for movie-goers to laugh at the antics of stupid characters doing gross and moronic things.

Certainly, personal taste comes into play when determining whether a particular film of this sort is dumb and funny or just plain dumb. But there's a little more to it than that. The best of these movies feature clever, witty scripts, actors who understand the concept of comic timing, and humor that does not rely exclusively on bodily fluids to generate laughter. Pictures like There's Something About Mary and American Pie are hilarious not only because they're in bad taste, but because the filmmakers understand the basic principles of comedy. And that's where Saving Silverman comes in, because director Dennis Dugan (who helmed several Adam Sandler movies) understands these precepts and uses them. Saving Silverman isn't going to win any screenwriting awards, but it is pretty consistently funny, and that's about all one can ask from this kind of motion picture.

I'm sure the MPAA will find some way to justify the PG-13 rating, but, in today's climate, it's hard to fathom how Almost Famous could be tagged with an R while Saving Silverman is accorded a PG-13. (Maybe it's because Kate Hudson flashed her breasts in Almost Famous while there are no nipples in Saving Silverman...) I suppose it's entirely possible that the people classifying the movies missed some of Saving Silverman's raunchiest material (such as the reason Steve Zahn is doing naked calisthenics or why Jason Biggs' jaw is tired). It reminds me of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when filmmakers had to go through all sorts of contortions to maneuver around the Hays Code.

Jason Biggs, hopelessly typecast, is back in the same kind of role he played in both American Pie and Loser: a healthy, young American male who has limited social skills and no success with women. This time, however, he gets lucky. His character, Darren Silverman, is in the right place at the right time, and thus is able to hook up with the "queen of all hotties", Judith (Amanda Peet), who turns out to be a maneater. In no time, she has Darren following her around like an obedient puppy, much to the dismay of his two long-time best friends, Wayne (Steve Zahn) and J.D. (Jack Black). They are aghast when Darren announces his engagement to Judith, and they resolve to stop the relationship before their buddy gets to the altar. To that end, they concoct an amazingly idiotic plan that involves kidnapping Judith; persuading Darren to go out with Sandy (Amanda Detmer), the girl he pined for in high school (and who is in training to become a nun); and getting some help from Darren's idol, Neil Diamond.

Not surprisingly, most of the comedy in Saving Silverman has something to do with sex. There are plenty of jokes about masturbation, homosexuality, and various permutations of male/female physical interaction. There's also a welcome absence of toilet humor. Saving Silverman has its share of pratfalls and slapstick moments, but there's almost no flatulence. This, more than anything, is an indication that the comedy is being pitched at an older audience than grade-schoolers (or those with a grade school mentality).

To effectively realize the comedy, Dugan has brought on board two of the funniest Americans working in film today - Steve Zahn (whose goofy mannerisms can generate laughter in mundane circumstances) and Jack Black (whose no-holds-barred supporting role in High Fidelity was one of the film's highlights). However, while both of these men are good, Saving Silverman is stolen out from under them by an unlikely source - R. Lee Ermy. The former drill sergeant, who is best known for his tough-guy, humorless roles (such as his turn in Full Metal Jacket), uses an over-the-top version of his usual personae to hilarious effect. Like Robert DeNiro in Analyze This and Meet the Parents, Ermy draws upon his own reputation and his acting ability to fashion a memorable self-parody. Long after Saving Silverman is forgotten, people will remember Ermy's work here. He pilfers every scene he's in.

The other actors basically do what they're supposed to do. Biggs is the likable loser. Amanda Peet, who is one of a crop of actresses on the rise, enjoys digging her teeth into her part. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Peet's work in this film is her costumes. While not as revealing as her clothing (or lack thereof) in The Whole Nine Yards, they exhibit a fair amount of cleavage. The other Amanda, Amanda Detmer, is one of those interchangeable faces who often shows up in movies about high school/college age individuals. Then there's Neil Diamond, who looks spry and fit, and can still belt out a tune. (Fans of Diamond's music will love Saving Silverman's soundtrack.)

Saying that Saving Silverman is the most amusing movie thus far of 2001 isn't much of a compliment considering the competition, but it is the truth. The movie offers the kind of unpretentious entertainment that only this sort of dumb comedy can aim for. And, because the humor works more often than not, the protagonists are affable (if not terribly bright), and Ermy's performance is superlative, Saving Silverman represents one of those pleasantly unexpected diversions that occasionally crop up during the bleakness of the winter movie season.

Saving Silverman (United States, 2001)

Director: Dennis Dugan
Cast: Jason Biggs, Steve Zahn, Jack Black, Amanda Peet, R. Lee Ermey, Amanda Detmer, Neil Diamond
Screenplay: Hank Nelken & Greg DePaul
Cinematography: Arthur Albert
Music: Mike Simpson
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2001-02-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1