The worst movie of this century happened in 2001 and no one remembers it.
I can’t explain why, on a sleepy, Saturday afternoon trip to Blockbuster, my sixth-grade self picked out Saving Silverman as her weekend VHS choice. I had few limitations on what I watched as a kid, so having seen both American Pie and Varsity Blues at age nine convinced me that once I hit double-digits it was a literal sin to watch anything rated PG ever again. More curse words meant a higher quality movie. More nudity meant I was smarter.
Saving Silverman broke that. A movie filled with all the slapdash slapstick comedy and absurdly dated gender stereotypes that should have delighted my 11-year-old brain left me bordering on angry. It might have very well been the first time that I didn’t laugh at something that I knew was trying to make me laugh, and that I wasn’t won over by characters merely screaming and calling that comedy.
In one of my quarantine content cravings, I found the movie on Netflix — nearly 20 years after I first watched it. I wasn’t expecting to find it any better (if a sixth grader tells you something isn’t funny, you should probably believe them). But I did find myself questioning how Saving Silverman seemingly got away with being that bad. I’m not saying it didn’t get terrible reviews (it boasts a score of 18% on Rotten Tomatoes). But it did nevertheless manage to shake off any permanent baggage; it did not develop a cult following of so-bad-it’s-good devotees, nor did it find itself on any prominent worst-of lists. It’s never been featured on any of the more prolific bad movie podcasts. It’s never really done anything, when really, this movie deserves to live forever as a time capsule — a tribute to all that one should try to avoid when creating comedy.
And really, what a time capsule it is. Nothing screams “2001 casting!” more than an ensemble fronted by Jason Biggs, featuring screwball friends Steve Zahn and Jack Black, and love interests Amanda Peet and Amanda Detmer. What does it say about your movie that your core cast includes “somehow the most hateful character in Orange is the New Black,” “the worst part of the already-garbage 2008 X-Files movie” and, the biggest get, “the girl who got hit by a bus in Final Destination”?
Here’s a basic rundown: Darren Silverman (Biggs) is a sensitive, wimpy 20something guy who inexplicably hangs around his more brash but equally loserish friends Wayne (Zahn) and JD (Black). Darren pines miserably over his high school sweetheart Sandy (Detmer), whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years. He meets the domineering and humourless Judith (Peet) and, with zero explanation, is instantly attracted to her. Judith does not get along with Wayne and JD. When Judith and Darren get engaged, Wayne and JD decide to kidnap Judith and fake her death so that Darren is more inclined to move on and get back together with Sandy. Oh, also, R. Lee Ermey is there.
There’s so much wrong with this movie — from the premise to the execution and the countless giveaways that its budget was nonexistent — that I’m shocked at how little of a hatedom its gathered. My main guess is that, by virtue of being released in 2001, it benefitted from the lazy cynicism with which we approached pre-9/11 pop culture. Movies were allowed to be bad and not revel in it but simply fade away. We were still two years away from the production of The Room, and the podcast revolution had not yet shown just how much potential there was in lampooning cinema’s greatest failures (although MST3K had been long-established, the practice was still mainly reserved for older or obscure B-movies). The internet was alive, yes, but internet culture (fortunately) had not yet taken off.
And so, the world was allowed to forget Saving Silverman. A film that could have otherwise left a smoking crater in pop culture or unified the world’s cinema cynics in an orgy of mockery and disdain simply smouldered out — quite instantly.
I feel compelled to deliver this movie’s comeuppance, if only as an act of apology toward my sixth grade self.
Should you watch it?
It’s the fundamental question of all bad movies: is it the kind of bad movie you should watch, or the kind you should avoid? If there wasn’t a point to watching bad movies, we wouldn’t know who Tommy Wiseau was.
Saving Silverman is, I’d argue, a must-watch, but not so that you can laugh at director Dennis Dugan’s failed attempts to build characters we care about or enjoy a chuckle at writers Hank Nelken and Greg DePaul’s dialogue and its failure to land. You’ll watch it with your jaw on the ground, aghast at how something so awful could be allowed to be made. You’ll watch it and instantly mourn all of the thoughtful, intelligent films that were overlooked for investment and passed up by major distributors in favour of this paper-thin wannabe farce that Sony Pictures Releasing somehow saw fit to give a wide release. You’ll watch it and immediately wonder how Gone Girl sparked years-long debates on whether or not the book or movie was misogynistic while this, a movie written by, directed by and produced by a team of men, wasn’t hammered for being rooted entirely in hatred of women.
And oh yes, this movie hates women. I don’t say that because the plot is centered around the abduction of the film’s lead female character, but because Judith herself is a manifestation of nearly every misogynistic trope/fear that men could possibly have about assertive women. There is no nuance or grey area to Judith’s meanness. She is not just annoying, She is Satan incarnate. She’s a psychiatrist (and because this is 2001, therapy is presented as little more than an emasculating scam) who refuses to show basic human decency to anyone she deems “below” her. She withholds sex from Darren but takes great pleasure in receiving cunnalingus from him. She subjects him to humiliating medical procedures and, as a cherry on top, proposes to him (eek!) and makes him take her last name (double eek)!
If at any point you were leafing through Gone Girl and had to ask yourself if Amy Elliot Dunne was written to make people hate women, please meet Judith Fessbeggler.
Worse off is that the movie only has two female characters (more on that below). Because Sandy is sweet, passive, devoid of any real backbone and lacks any motivation other than finding love and behind kind to people, the movie’s thesis, even if inadvertent, is quite clear: any signs of ambition or toughness in women is a red flag, but a woman who is soft in heart, passive and uptalking will treat you right.
To cap it off, the movie predictably ends with Judith realizing she’s in love with Wayne — moments after they beat each other senseless. Lest you think that these characters are such caricatures that it must be a halfhearted attempt at a parody, much of the movie’s pre-release press tour focused on how special the plot was, because it tackled a unique issue.
Specifically, Biggs told Rolling Stone, “There are guys out there who can’t hang out with their friends because their girlfriends are controlling. It’s a universal problem.” My sides split from the idea that this movie thought it was saying something. Not only is the movie clearly high on its own bullshit, but it actually undermines any potential seriousness it looked to convey. A woman like Judith is what anyone with half a brain would call “an abuser.” It is not a novel or drastic concept. But because of how cartoonish Judith is — and the fact that she eventually finds love with someone who was simply willing to abuse her back — this movie shows its cards. It wants to have it both ways. And, predictably, it fails.
Should it come to any surprise that besides this movie’s overarching theme that misogyny is actually good like 80% of the time, the only other “glue” holding it together is comprised entirely of gay jokes? Besides the guffaw we’re all supposed to share at the prospect of Darren being a male cheerleader (there’s no real joke, but there’s the cadence of one as though we’re supposed to laugh, so I suppose the message here is that male cheerleaders are inherently funny?), JD’s arc throughout the film is the eventual realization — for no real reason — that he is gay. Like Wayne, he’s also paired up with someone at the end: his verbally abusive, physically violent and cartoonishly misogynistic football coach (Ermey).
Seriously, how did this move not unite cinephiles in their hatred?
A failure of execution
If the 90s and the deluge of SNL alumni peepeepoopoo comedy movies proved anything, it’s that a terrible idea can work well with the right execution.
A 27-year-old repeats kindergarten through senior year to gain control of a hotel empire. A clueless lothario and international spy from the 60’s travels in time and has to adjust to life in the 90’s. An oafish failson strives to save his father’s business by proving he can sell brake pads while outwitting a pair of good-looking con artists. These are not great ideas — but the writers, the actors and the directors behind these movies understood how to create quotable dialogue, develop characters we could care about and create a vague sense of stakes.
This film, though, does take refuge in absurdity. It’s clearly not meant to be taken seriously. It does not view itself as a film from which viewers should extrapolate moral messages or virtually any serious thematic elements. The very fact that its male ensemble is united in their love of Neil Diamond, whose live performances bookend the film and whose music is featured throughout (the trio even has a Neil Diamond cover band) should tip one off to the film’s existence in a subhuman universe far removed from our own reality. Diamond is, reality, one of the most milquetoast, zero-risk embodiments of light-wash denim Americana music. He seems to know it in his self-aware, overly serious cameo, meaning the movie seems to know it too. The movie thinks it’s ridiculous. And therefore, shouldn’t we go easy on it?
The problem is, Saving Silverman barely attempts to convey that the movie is not grounded in reality and that its stakes are not real. It lacks the guts to go all the way into anything.
There’s a cartoonish jailbreak (the characters’ legal troubles are then seemingly forgotten about immediately). There’s a scene in which R. Lee Ermey throws himself out of a moving vehicle to attempt suicide-by-cop (and somehow survives). There are countless sequences of violence that are more uncomfortable than unflinching.
Compare that to the movies that this seemed to be at least partially inspired by — peak Chris Farley movies like Tommy Boy, peak (or slightly post-peak) Adam Sandler movies like The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy and Little Nicky. Theoretically, it could work. Few people had the physicality of peak Chris Farley, but Jack Black has the potential to come close as a more huggable version — but he spends most of the film on the couch, in a mascot outfit or crossing his arms making dry remarks. Steve Zahn, although still a C-lister, has proven to have good comedic timing and delivery. But nothing clicks. Whereas a peak-era Sandler movie might have Wayne dissolve into an uncontrollable adult tantrum when he realizes he’s been bested by Judith, the best this movie could come up with is the dimwitted Wayne coming up short and calling her a “stealer… of my friend!” Tommy Boy and Billy Madison managed to coax viewers into full cognitive shutdowns in order to make them laugh harder. Saving Silverman makes you long for a full cognitive shutdown.
Jack Black isn’t the only performer who feels physically limited. The entire movie is in a state of atrophy. Much like Judith lamely chained to a motor in Wayne and J.D.’s garage, this movie could move around, breathe and explore the world it’s in, whether through a series of sketch scenes, montages or vague attempts at side plots. Instead, despite being given six feet or so of chain and not even being secured to the ground, it doesn’t even bother getting up off the couch. It resigns to its fate.
The movie mostly takes place at Wayne’s house, which is so dingy and beige that it doesn’t even inspire comedy in its state of disrepair. There are a few scenes in Darren’s house which almost look like they’re shot in the exact same set they built for Wayne. And the few outdoor scenes all seem to take place around the same downtown promenade/pier, as though they were only given a single day to shoot outside of whatever Vancouver soundstage they’d rented by the hour.
There are only six real characters — seven if you count Diamond — and all but one (Judith) are introduced in the first flashback sequence. The show barely has extras, and the few characters that have other speaking lines don’t even really get jokes (because Jack Black is a lead, of course one of those one-line characters is Kyle Gas, but his appearance as a pathetic magician looking for love exists solely to advance the absurd plot and is more cringeworthy in a pitiful sense than a humorous one). The closest the movie comes to this is the absurdly strong nun who coaches Sandy. I can tell it’s supposed to be a joke, because a nun being into weightlifting (while still wearing her habit) has to be a joke, right?
(While I generally detest bringing up the Bechdel test, should it come as any surprise that this movie not only fails it, but also only features one conversation between two women at all? Sandy and Mother Superior converse in one scene, of course speaking about a man. They’re not even speaking about God, despite being nuns. They’re speaking about Darren).
Why? Why did I watch it? Why did I write this? Why did you read this? Why?
I have no explanation for why, after two weeks, I can’t get Saving Silverman out of my head, just as I have no explanation for why sixth-grade Bree confidently clutched the VHS to her chest, marched over to her mother and said, “I’m getting this one.”
Is something truly mediocre if it inspires such vitriol? I always imagined that the point of mediocrity was that you could simply glide under the radar, escaping your harshest critics because they will always have something better to do. True mediocrity doesn’t leave an impression — and it should be grateful that it doesn’t. But the only explanation for why Saving Silverman managed to not leave an impression was that it got lucky — whether it was the movies it opened against, the sociopolitical climate at the time or the very of-its-time willingness to overlook obvious and outright misogyny, Saving Silverman escaped 2001 unscathed.
But I know that I can’t leave well enough alone. If I couldn’t have been part of the righteous brigade to bring this film to justice 19 years ago, I can at least be really, really mad about it.