Sleeper Celluloid: Real Reviews of Fake Movies

Been There, Done That: Saving Electra

Director: Phil Traill; Cast: Jack Black, Megan Fox, Sylvester Stallone, Tobey Maguire, Judy Greer, and Shaquille O’Neal

Casting Jack Black as a romantic lead is a bold move. After his 2005 appearance in the cable series Laser Farts, some assumed the Whoopee Cushion of his career had gasped its last. But in 2006 came Nacho Libre (another nod in the direction of flatulence?), and soon thereafter Be Kind Rewind (2008). Not classics, I admit, but with one furry hand after another, Black clawed his way out of the pit and began to scale the heights—rather like the great ape King Kong (with whom he shares so many features, minus the size). And as Kung Fu Panda went franchise, he could legitimately pummel his man-boobs and roar. Women everywhere should be taking notice.

This backstory of triumph—or rather, of victorious return after defeat—is what drew me to Saving Electra. And with Black playing the lead role of Bruce Meek, there was no way this film could succumb to the cookie cutter of romantic comedy.

Or should I say, romantic drama? There’s a wistfulness about Black we never detected in the swashbuckling of the Nacho or behind the jiggling belly of Po. But think about it. Do you really have to look like Robert Pattinson to know the bite of lost love or the sting of ridicule? Hardly! Why are thickset men—especially if they’re compact and hirsute (which scientists call a sign of vigor)—so often deemed unfit for romantic duty? It’s been that way since Quasimodo and Esmeralda, or even Snow White with her faithful (but only platonically loved) companions. Women refuse to acknowledge it, but shorter, stockier, hairier men have feelings, too. They’ve suffered. They’ve taken it on their double chin. Trust me.

That boxing metaphor comes thanks to Sylvester Stallone, who plays Bubba, Bruce Meek’s dad in Saving Electra. Those of you who remember Stallone—himself rather short and hairy, and now thickening a bit in the middle—as a stone-faced, droopy-eyed Rambo (or Rocky Balboa or Judge Dredd or Jack Carter or Frankie Delano) will be moved by his performance here, especially the scene where he counsels young Bruce and manages to raise his right eyebrow. The culmination of a fine career.

This is the kind of film you’ll enjoy with a cold beer in your fist. Of course, you don’t get longnecks at the multiplex, which is why I prefer watching movies at home. Yes, the restraining order has something to do with it, too, but now the living room is practically a home theater. Just scoot the dishes and overdue bills to the side and put your feet on the coffee table. You have total freedom that way. No worrying about other people. Or putting on trousers. (I don’t care how short they are; hairy legs need to breathe.) And besides, it’s good to be here in case the phone rings. Which it could. You never know.

Bruce Meek is a beer drinker, too. That’s right: he’s not prancing about, holding his little pinkie out from a champagne flute. Nobody does that in this movie except for Trent (flat-bellied Tobey Maguire—as if Peter Parker could ever be a turn-on!), who swoops in to steal away Electra Miles (Megan Fox) from Bruce. It’s a story as old as Time: a brooding, soon-to-be-successful and charmingly scruffy beau loses his jaw-droppingly gorgeous, newly anointed poet girlfriend to a guy with a size-fifteen neck (and hardly a hair on it; seriously, has Maguire even gone through puberty yet?), and who happens to be a psychiatrist specializing in issues of low self-esteem. Not that he has any such problems. Why should he? Especially since he practically abducts Bruce’s girlfriend, using his psycho-mumble-hocus-jumble-pocus. And although Bruce struggles mightily to recover her, that is, to “save” her, as the title implies, she—spoiler alert—ultimately remains with “Trent” (is that even his real name?), whose “good looks” are less chiseled than putty-knifed.

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Saving Electra is stirring. I had to take breaks to hold myself together. Which gave me time to make nachos and grab another beer. I checked for phone messages. Once or twice I peeked through the telescope, just to see what was going on across the street. (She wasn’t home yet.) Then back to work on the sofa!

I don’t mean to set this up as the greatest movie of all time. Maybe just the decade. What holds it back, frankly, is the pacing. Length isn’t the problem. (It’s a one-six-pack-er). Nor do I think every story has to have a happy ending. Although, would it have killed Phil Traill to make good on the title and let Electra be “saved”? But there’s just no time for that. In fact, the first sixty minutes are spent on backstory, a year in the life of Bruce and Electra, as the protagonist broods in his existential funk, struggling to help his girlfriend see at every single turn why her short-term success as a “poet” (and a minimalist one at that!) is responsible for his inability to put a brush to the canvas, or compose a single measure at the piano, or apply for that fast-food job—whichever one he decides to do!

We’ve all been there, right? One thing’s for sure: Traill knows how to portray loss, keeping the camera tight and close on Bruce’s grimaces, and even on Bubba’s stoic scowl (just before the eyebrow twitch). There’s a stunning shot of Black after he receives Electra’s goodbye note. (She sends it from her iPad, and just by iMessage, not even the guts for FaceTime!) As the camera draws back, the living room grows around him, swallowing him up like a paunchier, hairier, and smaller Jonah in the belly of the whale.

But he scrabbles his way out. After all, he’s supposed to save her, right? Soon he’s swinging by her house, “crossing paths” at the grocery store, and even popping up at all her dates—or, as Trent calls them, “sessions.” (“How does he keep finding you?” Trent asks. Hah! Remember Electra’s iPad? Thank God for GPS. It’s the greatest. Am I right, or what?) Anyway, Bruce calls her some names and bellows outside her window in the middle of the night. The police get involved. This kind of romantic diligence used to be rewarded (think Benjamin Braddock courting Elaine Robinson in The Graduate). They can call it stalking if they want, but the intentions are good.

As Electra slips through Bruce’s stubby fingers, there’s this throbbing background music. What is that, I thought. Some kind of drum? Or a bagpipe? The joke was on me: it was me, blubbering. Who did I feel more sorry for? Bruce, destined to be a lone wolf hero? Or Electra, condemned to a life of bourgeois numbness, the horror of which she remained blind to? No doubt about it: her loss outstripped his by a mile.

The drama is heightened by a catchy cameo by Shaquille O’Neal (yes, very tall, but developing a bit of a belly—it’s just human, after all), and a powerful role by Judy Greer (Amy), who tries to mediate between her two best friends, and who, if you replay sections of the DVD over and over, clearly shows a bit of a thing for Bruce that she’s too shy to express.

Some movies just resonate with their age; they pulse with a generation. No sooner had I finished than I pressed play again, and right after the second viewing I drained my last Bud (Lite, so the gut’s not from that) and got on the internet to order a copy for a certain special someone I know, whose name starts with “M,” who lives really close by, who probably reads my work, and who I think will find Saving Electra pretty damn relevant. Yes indeedy. Pretty goddam relevant.

Everyone should see this movie. God knows why it’s only on DVD. But order it. Express shipping. Then sit your fat hairy ass down and click play. Have a beer. It’s not too late. Get busy Saving Miranda.

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Scott Dominic Carpenter teaches French literature and critical theory at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. His fiction has appeared in a broad array of literary journals. Both his collection of short stories, This Jealous Earth, and his novel, Theory of Remainders, came out in 2013.