Turkey time

It’s the season of leisure and cinema-going. And blockbuster busts. SN&R’s most masochistic film critic endured five of the decade’s worst—to remind everyone what bottom looks like.


“It’s turkey time. Gobble, gobble.”
—Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) in Gigli

From what I understand, it is almost impossible for studio movies to lose money. The pre-sold properties of a Hollywood blockbuster and the endless potential for sequels and cross-marketing have rigged the system in favor of the big, dumb and familiar.

In that case, the unqualified failures of the Hollywood machine would better explain its pitiful current output than the unqualified successes. To understand why Hollywood is a juvenile franchise factory, you have to endure its most noxious stinkbombs.

At least, I do, but that’s why pompous film critics exist: to be tortured by mainstream movies so devoid of redeeming value, they were rejected by the same consumer public that embraced Patch Adams. These five debacles represent some of Hollywood’s biggest modern busts, and I survived to tell their stories.

The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002; $100 million budget, $7 million gross)

Pluto Nash (Eddie Murphy): “What happened?”

James (John Cleese): “Obviously, you did something stupid.”

How do movies like Pluto Nash happen? That’s the first thing people usually wonder when confronted with flops of such immensity. In this case, it was a combination of bad timing, bad trends and undiluted incompetence.

The script had kicked around since 1985, but when The Phantom Menace cleaned up in the late 1990s, the moon-set Pluto Nash was dusted off and rejiggered with enough fart jokes to qualify as an Eddie Murphy comedy.

Pluto Nash has a sci-fi setting, the basic structure of film noir and enough people “acting funny” to hint at unrealized comedic aspirations, but beyond that, its intentions in the field of entertainment remain mysterious.

The cut-and-paste script is thoroughly comic-tose, and the special effects—supposedly the basis for the film’s $100 million budget—are childish. In the technical evolution of cinema, the Pluto Nash FX team continues to lag behind George Méliès. Pluto Nash was shelved for two years, ultimately grossing less than $10 million, but the portrait in Murphy’s closet continued to age apace.

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A Sound of Thunder (2005; $80 million budget, $12 million gross)

“We studied something called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You basically can’t be 100 percent sure of anything. Accidents happen.”
—Payne (David Oyelowo)

Heisenberg never met Peter Hyams. The director/cinematographer hasn’t made a single decent film in four decades, although before 2002, Hyams avoided bombs with the resonance of A Sound of Thunder.

An insipid adaptation of the Ray Bradbury short story, Thunder was plagued with Job-like disasters during production, proving that God is a cinéaste and Christians should stop creating graven Left Behind sequels in his name.

Thunder started shooting in 2002, but flooding in Prague forced major delays, problems exacerbated when the production company went bankrupt. With $80 million already sunk, Thunder was dumped into theaters in 2005 with 16 producer credits and no notable advertising campaign.

Still, Hyams’ snoozer, stuffed with sub-Syfy channel effects and enough pseudoscience to embarrass the intelligent design crowd, was always destined for failure. Did I mention that it stars Ed Burns as a brilliant scientist?

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Town & Country (2001; $90 million budget, $10 million gross)

“This is about you and your big, stupid penis!”
—Ellie (Diane Keaton)

Typically, three types of creative crises can ignite a runaway production: megalomaniacal stars, overmatched directors and unprepared screenplays. Peter Chelsom’s unwatchable Town & Country notched the rare hat trick.

The first problem was Warren Beatty, legendary for dominating his film sets, but by then creatively bankrupt and a lukewarm draw. Beatty tortured novice director Glenn Gordon Caron while filming his 1994 bomb Love Affair, demanding endless retakes of prosaic setups, and was determined to “work his magic” on the lightweight Chelsom.

How else to explain the numbing lack of urgency that permeates every pointless scene in Town & Country? The chaotic production started in June 1998, and was still going in April 1999 when Diane Keaton and Garry Shandling left to make other films. Production resumed in early 2000, but the film didn’t limp into theaters until 2001.

Absence had not made moviegoers any fonder for the film’s urbane crassness (sample witticism: “I knew you were an architect. I like to fuck architects.”), and it pulled in just $10 million, effectively ending Beatty’s career.

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All the King’s Men (2006; $55 million budget, $9 million gross)

“The world is full of sluts on skates.”
—Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson)

Not every bomb is born of crass or ignoble intentions. Some are just boring as hell.

All the King’s Men was a “prestige project” upon conception, and with an awards-bait cast headed by Sean Penn and timely themes of political corruption, it was considered an Oscar contender.

What happened? All the King’s Men not only flopped, it remains unfathomably tedious. It’s “more faithful” to the book than the 1949 version (except for the Gumbo-dipped Louisiana accents), but to no discernible benefit. Penn is unusually boring as Willie Stark; he never seems like the biggest man in the room, when he should be commanding it.

The soundtrack is in perpetual swell mode, so we can’t tell if we’re supposed to be outraged or inspired. Mostly we’re annoyed, and since the characters never engage us, each scene is a death march toward its own conclusion. The studio held All the King’s Men back a year, but time wasn’t kind, and it was scratched from the awards race on sight.

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Gigli (2003; $54 million budget, $7 million gross)

“Stick a fork in me, I’m done!”
—Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck)

Ever have a friend get romantically involved with someone so incompatible, their mutual presence grew excruciating? Gigli is the over-budget romantic comedy they would have made.

Ben Affleck stars as Mafia thug Larry Gigli, a role so beyond his skill set he might as well be playing King Lear. Larry is hired to kidnap the mentally retarded brother of a federal prosecutor, but Larry’s boss assigns the more capable Ricki (J-Lo) to supervise. Rank formula alone compels them to fall in love.

Director Martin Brest shoots repulsive, Kevin Smith-style cunnilingus monologues with the fastidiousness Kubrick brought to the pistol duel in Barry Lyndon. Gigli cost $54 million, even though most of the “action” takes place inside of a small apartment.

There’s an old saying I just invented: It’s better to flush your credibility down the toilet than your wallet. Gigli did both. There are some things an American public bred on sodium benzoate and processed hog anus just won’t swallow, and Bennifer was one of them.

Read Daniel Barnes film blog at http://estreetfilmsociety.blogspot.com.

All budget and box-office figures are courtesy of Box Office Mojo.