The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story (2014)

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When the television show Saved by the Bell went off the air it left a legacy of bad jokes, instantly dated fashion, and performers doomed to be typecast the rest of their careers.  But a certain fondness lingered and in time questions began to form about what happened behind the scenes.  The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story, directed by Jason Lapeyre, looks to tell this story.

Remember the good timesWatching Saved by the Bell growing up is one of those experiences that is so specific to its time that explaining its appeal to people outside of an exact age and demographic bracket is difficult. So difficult, in fact, that it’s one of those shows that seems to be remembered for the sole purpose of trying to forget it. Why did we watch this so much? Why do we remember whole episodes out of bare descriptions? Who is this “we” that absorbed so much of the show and have it affect so little of our appreciation of art and culture?

I’m not going to pretend that Saved by the Bell was groundbreaking. Heck, if it wasn’t for the fact that TBS ran the show in hour-long blocks every day I would have barely registered its existence. But I got home from school, it was on, and since it was reasonably entertaining (Mr. Belding still delights to this day) I absorbed it like a sponge. So what does a film about this experience look like? There were many directions The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story could have taken its story, and in the end is pulled apart in so many pieces that single scenes barely resemble each other, and the enterprise is a drama emptier than the show it is based on.

I suppose there’s the question of how much leniency should be granted to a Lifetime made-for-TV film. None. Television has a rich history of producing groundbreaking films via kinescope in the ‘50s with Marty and Days of Wine and Roses right up to the cable films of recent years with You Don’t Know Jack and Wit. Even experiments that have aged miserably, like the ABC miniseries of The Stand, are remembered for their ambition if not for quality. What distinguishes The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story (which - for the sake of brevity and my fingers – is TUSbtBS from this point on) from those is a complete identity crisis, and an unwillingness to commit to any direction for fear of unbalancing its mediocre core.

This is an unusual considering some of TUSbtBS’s scenes are so bizarre they couldn’t be mediocre in many other films. One moment has Dustin Diamond (Sam Kindseth) imagines himself as a grotesque mass of muscle with the hair of the fictional Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Dylan Everett) entering a pool of teenage cuties. Kindseth’s expanding, liquid frame is bad enough, but with his fake hair based on a bad dye job of the real Gosselaar’s already epically terribly hair from the original show, soft-focus photography, and pink border it becomes a postmodern nightmare commentary on the show itself. In this moment TUSbtBS is at least memorable as it borrows freely from the show, the general reception of the show, the real Dustin Diamond’s wildly insecure memoir, and blends them into a monster.

Tfdsafdsaf borrows conventions from the show but finds no way to elevate its pathetic narrator.

TUSbtBS borrows conventions from the show but finds no way to elevate its pathetic narrator.

If the rest of TUSbtBS was this ambitiously grating then we’d have something worth the eighty minutes here. But TUSbtBS isn’t interested in this kind of experience, settling instead for a boilerplate story of success that is all at the same time too familiar and just weird enough to wonder where detours could have gone. It’s not that it needed more grotesque images like the mutated Diamond, but so much of TUSbtBS is spent with the moping cast members that any displays of positive energy, be it excitement of the crowd or the newly popular cast flexing their spending muscle, feel imported from an entirely different film.

For instance, that moment with the mutated Diamond doesn’t mesh with the otherwise docudrama feel of the scene where the cast clashes on the set of their latest photo shoot. This is actually a pretty good moment, one of the few in the film, and no surprise that it was the scene Lifetime put out as a promo clip for the film. But compare the cinematic approach here versus the mutated Diamond’s fantasy sequence. It’s mostly close-up camerawork, a bit shaky to emphasize the documentary aspect, and constantly switches cast members in and out so that they will get a chance to react in different ways.

It’s a mismatch, but they at least both work on their own terms. But almost everything in-between suffers from an identity crisis about which version of the Saved by the Bell story director Jason Lapeyre wants to tell. There’s moments where it looks like TUSbtBS will flirt with the dirty deeds of Diamond’s book, then veers off into total innocence. A teenage girl’s rendezvous with Mario Lopez (Julian Works) is supposed to show the different ways Mario salaciously “passed the time”, but reveals harmless kissing. Diamond’s own descent into debauchery is a couple of sips of vodka and smoking weed once, an act so harmless that juxtaposing it with Elizabeth Berkley (Tiera Skovbye) rehearsing the infamous “I’m so excited” scene adds little to either. I lost track of how many times TUSbtBS referred to the mixed race of the cast and their diverse parents only to leave that fact dangling in the air with no supporting moments from the film.

Sad thing is that these moments are why Saved by the Bell, for all its cheesy jokes (and I’m an eternal sucker for puns), endured in some way. There were people up on the screen you could identify with despite the hammy dialogue and 4th-wall breaking nature of the show.  TUSbtBS  recalls these qualities through multiple confusing lenses and an aversion to any one storytelling technique. For those of a certain age, we’ll take “I’m so excited” to our graves – the film is dead on arrival.

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Tail - The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell StoryThe Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story (2014)

Directed by Jason Lapeyre.
Teleplay written by Ron McGee.
Starring Sam Kindseth and Dylan Everett.

Posted by Andrew

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