8 Million Stories: Home, Movie

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It’s October 1994, and Eric Roberts likes me. A lot. We’re having a great conversation. That’s particularly pleasant since things got off to a bad start. I had to tell Roberts that Miramax had decided that they wouldn’t be releasing The Nature of the Beast to theaters. It would be going direct to video. That’s bad news for Mr. Roberts. He’s really proud of this film that he’s made with director Victor Salva.

Let’s assume—as I later will—that Roberts doesn’t know that The Nature of the Beast is Salva’s first film after getting out of jail for child molestation. I won’t know that myself when I get a friendly phone call from Salva a year later, but that’s another story.

What’s important here is that I’m happy that Eric Roberts likes me a lot. Roberts’ recent biggest hits may have been the Best of the Best karate epics, but he’s a very cool actor. I’ve thought so ever since his great turn as Dorothy Stratton’s psycho husband in Star 80. Then he followed that with a magnificently weasley turn in 1984’s The Pope of Greenwich Village.

Roberts would next get an Oscar nomination for his squirrelly work in 1985’s Runaway Train. Then his intense screen presence would start to get overshadowed by his famous sister. That’s OK. I prefer direct-to-video films, anyway. Maybe that’s why Eric and I are getting along so fabulously. We’re on a couch at one point, and he’s sitting so close that I’m thinking about casually mentioning that I’ve got a girlfriend.

The only thing that stops me is his wife sitting there in the same room. That would be the lovely Eliza Roberts, who’s a fine actress in her own right—and stepmother of future Nancy Drew star Emma Roberts. It’s up to Eliza to explain what’s going on while her husband briefly steps out to attend to some show business.

“He’s studying you,” she whispers. “He got this script in the other day, and he’s going to use you for the role.”

That gets a good laugh. “Christ,” I say, “that’s not likely. I know he’s not starring in a remake of The Nutty Professor.”

Eliza laughs, too. Hardy-har-har. Eric Roberts is supercool and intense, and he likes me a lot.

I’ll end up reviewing The Nature of the Beast for Entertainment Weekly and several of Eric Roberts’ other films over the next few years. I watch more of his films on late-night cable, but it’s hard to keep track of them all: He’ll show up in over 15 roles over the next two years, playing cold killers and flashy gangsters and at least one intergalactic overlord. So it’s understandable that I missed American Strays back in 1996.

Now it’s a Saturday night in mid-2007, and I’m checking out what’s on Channel 7’s late movie. Some weird stuff gets shown there. American Strays catches my attention. I remember when it briefly played in theaters. Even then, it was clearly one of the low-budget Tarantino knock-offs that were already floating around in the wake of Reservoir Dogs. The cast has the usual mix of a name actor trying to get indie cred (Luke Perry), a quirky star who survives off of strange roles (Jennifer Tilly) and faded names who are either genuinely talented (John Savage) or kitschy fun (Sam J. Jones).

And there’s Eric Roberts in what can only be called a change-of-pace role.

But first, let’s jump to several months later. It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and I’m talking to a woman about a conversation we had several years ago. She’s telling me that I once compared her unfavorably to Jack Lemmon. Specifically, I’d explained that she was Jack Lemmon and the woman I’d just left her for was Robert Mitchum.

I felt really sad and baffled to hear about that. For one thing, I can’t imagine saying anything so cruel—even if I was probably referring specifically to some scene from the 1957 Lennon/Mitchum film Fire Down Below.

It’s OK, she’d already forgiven me, partly because she’s decided that Jack Lemmon is pretty bad-ass. She wasn’t even offended at the time, because she understood whatever point I was trying to make.

Anyway, here’s some comfort for any other ladies who might have put up with me offering an unflattering cinematic comparison. Go watch American Strays. I am Eric Roberts in a change-of-pace role.

You can’t miss me, especially at the film’s finale. It’s no spoiler to give away the ending of American Strays. I already said that it’s a Tarantino rip-off. It all leads up to the far-too-typical shootout that was a staple of ’90s indie filmmaking. There’s the big finish where a bunch of ultra-cool hipsters and various ethnic stereotypes and moronic authority figures are suddenly pulling out their assorted firearms and blasting away at each other.

You’ll find Eric Roberts in the middle of it all. He’s not ultra-cool, and he’s not an ethnic stereotype, and he’s not an authority figure. He doesn’t even get to be the small-town hick who’s running the diner. He’s the geeky loser who’s stammering and screaming while standing in the crossfire of all these other types unloading their guns.

That would be me, all right. American Strays may be awfully dated, but it was still 2007’s Film of the Year. I didn’t know about it, but American Strays has pretty much been my film of every year since around 1995. Roberts certainly chose the proper inspiration for nailing his part.

That includes a little addendum to the big finish that I’d like to think of as also being very much me—but there’s no reason to dwell on a happy ending. This one’s for all the girls I’ve offended before. Let them have some satisfaction.

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