I finished Tiger King over the weekend, despite initial misgivings about getting sucked into even more TV that makes fun of white trash. I was compelled by the way we as viewers kept sinking through deeper layers of muck—it’s an impressive feat of storytelling. This isn’t a dissection of Tiger King as art, a diatribe on what it says about our socially distant society, or a theory about what actually happened (though I have taken my own cheap shots elsewhere). Instead, I want to look at the story that kept pacing the periphery of the cage that is my mind while I watched those big cats in captivity.
The Lifeguard is a terrible movie. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I do not recommend that you watch it, ever, and the 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes will back me up. Do not get this movie confused with Sam Elliott’s star-making turn in 1976’s Lifeguard,
which I’m told is sex on a stick and have added to my “To Watch” list. which I watched last night and now must admit has a VERY similar and, as much as I hate this word, problematic plot. Mea culpa. No, the lifeguard I’m talking about is the 2013 indie film starring Kristen Bell.
Look, I worship Kristen Bell. One of my biggest worries during quarantine is that the Veronica Mars Kickstarter poster of her oversized face that hangs in my office resembles what we in the trade call “a crazy-ass murderer wall,” looming over my shoulder in all Zoom meetings and online yoga classes. After falling in love with Bell as a “teen” through three seasons of network-television-appropriate pixie spy magic, her very human and completely natural sexuality was an adjustment. On top of the scenes with Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Season Four’s romp with Max Greenfield, her sex positivity in husband Dax Shepherd’s podcast and their shared social media presence have forced me to view her as a grown woman.
Still, the sex depicted in The Lifeguard is so bad, I think it might be illegal to watch. The premise of the film is that an overachiever has a quarter-life crisis, moves back home to resume her old summer job, and has a tryst with a teenage boy. It’s as bad as it sounds. I get what the movie was trying to do, a la Blanche duBois, but it just doesn’t work. It reminded me of Notes on a Scandal, which I thought was a pretty good book, but even Cate Blanchett and Dame Judy couldn’t save the movie. It’s one thing to read about statutory rape involving female predators; it’s quite another to see it simulated on screen. I honestly believe this film could have tanked the career of lesser actresses, and the fact that K. Bell signed on for this project—released the same year as Frozen—is the only reason it 1) showed up on my radar and 2) keeps crossing my mind.
This is difficult to write about without going back to watch the movie, which I refuse to do, even in the name of research (it’s that bad), but I distinctly remember the metaphor that threaded throughout the film. Leigh leaves her job as a journalist in New York because the article she had worked so hard on, the one that was supposed to be her big break, had been killed. That story was about a pet tiger kept captive in an NYC apartment. I don’t remember what happened to the tiger, but there’s a scene about midway through when Leigh is showing
her underage loverboy the photos of the clawmarks the tiger had left on the windowsill. It’s heart-wrenching, but the urban tiger as a metaphor for the primal urges of a gifted child going off the rails as an adult is a bit ham-fisted.
In the end, and I’m going to spoil the movie (you weren’t seriously planning to watch it, were you?) Leigh’s story about the tiger gets resurrected and published to great acclaim. She leaves town after apologizing to everyone, including her childhood friend WHO IS PRINCIPAL OF THE LOCAL HIGH SCHOOL AND WAS COMPLICIT IN THE STATUTORY RAPE. The funniest line in the whole movie (probably unintentionally so) comes when Leigh apologizes to the single father of her underage boyfriend, into whose house she had been sneaking at night to crawl into bed with a teenager. He says something like: “My son was getting laid; I don’t give a shit.” And that, really and truly, is the moral of that story.
Update: OK, now I have to address the double standard because I watched the Sam Elliott Lifeguard last night, and it also contains “illegal sex” with a minor (although off-screen). To bring balance back to the force, here is the tiger-in-captivity scene I’m thinking of, in which Kristen Bell is very good. It also shows the different attitudes toward tiger ownership and how I misremembered a few details: