8 Million Stories: Home, Movie

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Itís October 1994, and Eric Roberts likes me. A lot. Weíre having a great conversation. Thatís particularly pleasant since things got off to a bad start. I had to tell Roberts that Miramax had decided that they wouldnít be releasing The Nature of the Beast to theaters. It would be going direct to video. Thatís bad news for Mr. Roberts. Heís really proud of this film that heís made with director Victor Salva.

Letís assumeóas I later willóthat Roberts doesnít know that The Nature of the Beast is Salvaís first film after getting out of jail for child molestation. I wonít know that myself when I get a friendly phone call from Salva a year later, but thatís another story.

Whatís important here is that Iím happy that Eric Roberts likes me a lot. Robertsí recent biggest hits may have been the Best of the Best karate epics, but heís a very cool actor. Iíve thought so ever since his great turn as Dorothy Strattonís psycho husband in Star 80. Then he followed that with a magnificently weasley turn in 1984ís The Pope of Greenwich Village.

Roberts would next get an Oscar nomination for his squirrelly work in 1985ís Runaway Train. Then his intense screen presence would start to get overshadowed by his famous sister. Thatís OK. I prefer direct-to-video films, anyway. Maybe thatís why Eric and I are getting along so fabulously. Weíre on a couch at one point, and heís sitting so close that Iím thinking about casually mentioning that Iíve 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, whoís a fine actress in her own rightóand stepmother of future Nancy Drew star Emma Roberts. Itís up to Eliza to explain whatís going on while her husband briefly steps out to attend to some show business.

ďHeís studying you,Ē she whispers. ďHe got this script in the other day, and heís going to use you for the role.Ē

That gets a good laugh. ďChrist,Ē I say, ďthatís not likely. I know heís not starring in a remake of The Nutty Professor.Ē

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

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

Now itís a Saturday night in mid-2007, and Iím checking out whatís on Channel 7ís 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 thereís Eric Roberts in what can only be called a change-of-pace role.

But first, letís jump to several months later. Itís Thanksgiving weekend, and Iím talking to a woman about a conversation we had several years ago. Sheís telling me that I once compared her unfavorably to Jack Lemmon. Specifically, Iíd explained that she was Jack Lemmon and the woman Iíd just left her for was Robert Mitchum.

I felt really sad and baffled to hear about that. For one thing, I canít imagine saying anything so cruelóeven if I was probably referring specifically to some scene from the 1957 Lennon/Mitchum film Fire Down Below.

Itís OK, sheíd already forgiven me, partly because sheís decided that Jack Lemmon is pretty bad-ass. She wasnít even offended at the time, because she understood whatever point I was trying to make.

Anyway, hereís 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 canít miss me, especially at the filmís finale. Itís no spoiler to give away the ending of American Strays. I already said that itís a Tarantino rip-off. It all leads up to the far-too-typical shootout that was a staple of í90s indie filmmaking. Thereís 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.

Youíll find Eric Roberts in the middle of it all. Heís not ultra-cool, and heís not an ethnic stereotype, and heís not an authority figure. He doesnít even get to be the small-town hick whoís running the diner. Heís the geeky loser whoís 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 2007ís Film of the Year. I didnít 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 Iíd like to think of as also being very much meóbut thereís no reason to dwell on a happy ending. This oneís for all the girls Iíve offended before. Let them have some satisfaction.

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