Jack Lemmon won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Save the Tiger, though he deserved it far more on several other occasions. As dress-manufacturer Harry Stoner, Lemmon turns in showy, theatrical work that's appropriate to the not-terribly subtle film around him, but the whole enterprise is one that's best avoided by anyone but Lemmon fanatics and irrepressible curiosity seekers.
Director John G. Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid) brings superficial grit to Save the Tiger. Avildsen means the unadorned visuals to represent a slice of Stoner's pathetic life. Large stretches of the film play out in real time—introduced by plaintive trumpet, the first scene takes in the middle-aged man's morning ritual: waking up, mildly irritated, to his wife and bad news on the television. At work, Stoner referees arguments between an elderly Jewish-emigré craftsman and an upstart homosexual designer.
Yes, America is a churning "melting pot," and screenwriter Steve Shagan depicts the nakedly nostalgic Stoner (who spends the picture closing his eyes and listening to big-band music or muttering his fantasy baseball team) as an endangered species: the "tiger" is the American businessman. "I used to get goose-bumps every time I looked at that flag," moans the war veteran. But as corporate loyalty wilts, he realizes "history doesn't count anymore."
Jack Gilford is a welcome presence as Stoner's business partner, who challenges Harry's plan to escape his morass of debts and contractual palm-greasing by torching the dress factory. Tired of playing pimp for out-of-town clients, tired of hustling so hard for what he feel should be his American birthright, Harry plans to swim with the current. Save the Tiger, then, is another theatrical exploration of The American Dream gone wrong, but Shagan lacks the skill to evoke genuine fear and pity for his protagonist.
With circumstances crowding him out of business, Stoner is meant to be a loser whose intelligence and moral character have been beaten down and blunted by modern American history. We know he's smart because, when he climactically slums in a beach house with a free-spirited hippie girl he met on the Sunset Strip, he feverishly free-associates proof of his cultural literacy (naturally, the girl is too young and ignorant to keep up with him). "I want to be in love with something," Stoner confesses.
The scene embarrassingly caps Lemmon's performance, played just beneath the pitch of comedy. Good intentions go wrong as Shagan and Avildsen get misty eyed for their morally weak anti-hero, and though Lemmon's internalized moments are most affecting (and enough to remind us of the actor's absent greatness), not even an actor of his caliber can save Save the Tiger.
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