Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A strenuous drama about male middle age.
What did I get? Reminiscent of Arthur Miller, Save the Tiger is about a middle-aged businessman at the end of his tether. As portrayed by Jack Lemmon, apparel retailer Harry Stoner is a trudging cauldron of nostalgia-fueled frustration in whose mental landscape pre-WW2 heroes Cookie Lavagetto (Dodger third baseman) and Bunny Berigan (jazz trumpeter) loom large. Harry repeatedly invokes the American Dream, seemingly unaware that his own philandering and interest in expedient arson just might put him at odds with it. Targeted at the Silent Majority, the movie may strike other audiences as an exercise in grotesque self-pity.
Save the Tiger occasionally feels like I Love You, Alice B. Toklas reconstituted as a probing drama. Less a character than a screenwriter’s conception, Harry represents the typical American’s stolid befuddlement in the face of the messy new times. The tawdry disarray of post-JFK America has soured Harry’s idealism, rendered him judgmental and impatient. Profane cab drivers and thriving porno movie houses serve as proof that the country has lost its way. Desperately trying to save his moderately successful business from ruin, speechifying and volatile Harry is an actor’s dream, a “meaty” role; to his credit, Lemmon, who even at his best can be grating, does humanize the hapless chump. He won the Oscar for Best Actor.
Avildsen’s primary strength as a director is his deep comfort level with anger or frustration as a central motivation. By the movie’s lights, the gap between Harry’s actions and ideals lends sympathy to his plight. I don’t buy that for a second — in truth, Harry is a tiresome crank whose inability to part with his cherished boyhood illusions constitutes a good deal of his personality. No, I like Harry most when he deviates from type — his willingness to allow girls to play Little League baseball, for example, or his proficiency in Spanish, a legacy of his father’s shop in a Puerto Rican neighborhood.
But Harry is redeemed most of all in his dealings with Myra, a dreamy hippie chick who unaccountably finds Harry attractive. As played by Laurie Heineman, Myra is an authentic wonder, making nonsense of the movie’s theses by refusing to conform to a stereotype. She may be 100% an idealized projection, but she’s neither a dope nor a creep, as expected; within the limits of her idealized status, she’s perfectly nuanced and interesting and appealing.
In the brief sequences with Myra, the air of crabbed tension around Lemmon (and therefore Harry) dissipates; suddenly actor and character alike acquire fluidity, resemble a human being. It’s wonderful to watch Lemmon/Harry respond with genuine surprise for a change, even giggle. Myra is the only breath of fresh air this movie has, and it sorely needs it.
Save the Tiger is competent, but I doubt it has much to say to us anymore. The kindest thing I can say about it is, this material could have been a whole lot worse.
What here smacks of 1973? The onset of the Greatest Generation turning 50.
IMDB score: 6.9
My score: 6
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Steve Shagan
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Jack Gilford, Laurie Heineman, Norman Burton, Patricia Smith, Thayer David
IMDB synopsis: The film depicts a day and a half in Harry Stoner’s life. Harry is down on his luck, and trapped in his own indulgences. He daydreams about his youth, trying to escape from the fact that business is rotten and his company owes bundles of money. His day is filled with unusual episodes as he picks up a hitchhiker/prostitute, arranges for his company’s warehouse to burn down so he can collect the insurance-money, he hires strippers for his buddies and gets engaged in an animal rights campaign, a fashion show and experiences a rather uncomfortable flashback to the war.