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Overrated/Underrated: Box Office Bombs

November 14, 2010

Ham with a side of cheese in the 2006 box office hot mess 'All the King's Men'

In the Box Office Bomb discourse there are few sensory experiences the average pop culture consumer is able to ignore: the putrid smell of horse brutality wafting from the set of Heaven’s Gate, the itchy sandpaper feel of Bruce Willis’ hairpiece in Bonfire of the Vanities and the grating staccato laugh of Robin Williams as the titular character in Altman’s Popeye. To be clear, all six films below are awful; all make valuable contributions to the craptastic cinematic oeuvre. However, the frequency in which three of these films – the overrated group – appear as a reference point in film critics’ reviews of other bad films tends to scan as laziness to me. Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” and so it is true for box office bombs.

Overrated

Popeye – Robert Altman – cast: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley

Of the litany of things wrong with this musical-comedy treatment of the Popeye story – the script, acting, singing, casting – it’s receives far too much scorn for what amounts to me as a film no more grating or craptastic than the much beloved holiday classic A Christmas Story. For the record, I believe I am the only person on the planet not enamored with A Christmas Story. Still, the Altman bomb is evoked whenever a director unleashes an atomic bomb of a musical comedy, which is then embraced by audiences with all the warmth and enthusiasm of a crying baby on an airplane. Oddly enough I really enjoy the visuals, costuming and color palette of the film and Paul Dooley makes a surprisingly satisfying Whimpy. Williams is, of course, appalling as Popeye. Also pretty sure I don’t need to ever hear Shelley Duvall (who I adore) sing a love song to Robin Williams again.

Bonfire of the Vanities – Brian De Palma – cast: Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith

Oh the juicy intersection of a polarizing director – Brian De Palma – a “likable” movie star audiences were not ready to see play “bad” and Bruce Willis in an earnest hairpiece! It’s like they were trying to mountaineer to the top of the box office bomb reference list on the wings of a cinematic cautionary tale.

Waterworld – Kevin Costner – cast: Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn

“Kevin’s Gate”! “Fishtar”! I tell you what; the jokes just wrote themselves! Granted, the jokes were hilarious and perfectly legitimate. Certainly seemed to designed to knock old Kevin off his high horse. Again, Waterworld is definitely an awful film, which should be viewed to appreciate every stitch of fail woven into its tattered, dystopian fabric. That said, it’s still only on par with films like 2010: The Year We Make Contact, The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Chicken Run in terms of lasting effects on cinema and general unpleasantness. In fact, it’s low hanging fruit as far as comparisons are concerned. If you wanna see a really see a terrible dystopian Costner vehicle you only need to meet my friend The Postman. Puts that whole Waterworld chow chow in a bit of perspective.

Honorable Mentions:
The Last Castle – what, there are people who don’t enjoy seeing phoned-in performances by James Gandolfini, as a military prison warden, and Redford as a chambray shirt wearing prisoner? To be fair, “The Summer of Paul and Bob” is largely responsibly for my decision to watch this movie. It was all right. I’d watch it again and don’t tell nobody, but it’s next up in the DVD queue! Ha!

K19: The Widowmaker – Seriously? Academy-award winning director K-Big’s claustrophobic sub thriller is all kinds of entertaining.

Underrated

These films need MORE punishment. More scorn.

Heaven’s Gate – Michael Cimino (Hollywood, lock the doors so this mofo can’t get back in.) Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston (oh no you didn’t), Jeff Bridges (et tu, Dude-tay?)

Oh man, you hate to see this happen to such a collection of acting treasures. I was once in a film class where we had the option of either sitting through Heaven’s Gate – a western of sorts, which makes absolutely NO FREAKING SENSE and whose filming was plagued with unspeakable and unparalleled acts of animal cruelty – or take the final; I was the only person who took option A. The professor and I had never seen the film, but we’d read accounts of the filming that cut a wide swath of destruction and nearly bankrupted (or maybe it did) a studio. Suffice to say we were not impressed with Cimino’s “humble” 19th century Wyoming family saga and its struggle for survival. Definitely check out the documentary film Final Cut: The Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, which is actually far more interesting than the film itself. Though we’ve all become somewhat immune to the, “No ____ were harmed in the making of this film.” line films tack onto the credits both earnestly and sometimes fatuously, you can thank Heaven’s Gate for that.

Town & Country – Peter Chelsom – cast: Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Gary Shandling

It takes a special kind of talent to botch up the paint-by-numbers “White rich folks behaving badly” genre. Open a newspaper and the scripts just write themselves. This film is like watching your grandfolks, visiting from Florida, take turns doing riffs on Chris Rock’s comedy specials. Well, maybe that might be more satisfying. It’s the kind of “good-on-paper” movie, which is made frequently and I think we could severely limit their overrepresentation at the box office if more film critics would stop trying to perfect their Bonfire of the Vanities metaphor and introduce Town & Country to the discourse.

All the King’s Men – Steven Zaillian – Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini

Do you like being hit by a mack truck, then having the truck back up and run you over again for nearly three hours? Do you like having characters shout historically inaccurate exposition at you and each other? Do you like films where sitting in the front row means having to deal with the spittle flying off Sean Penn’s lips when he’s acting? If so, then this is the film for you. Man, hot bags of, “no thanks” were flying around the theater where I screen this film like confetti at ticker tape parade. People actually walked out. I did too! I haven’t walked out of a film since AI: Artificial Intelligence! The Times once said of the screenwriter-director Zaillian, “the most artful and subtle screenwriter Hollywood has had since Robert Towne.”, which seems kind of like a backhanded compliment. I’m kind of meh on Robert Towne. It’s a Snarky’s Machine problem; accept and move on.

So what box office bombs are you tired of critics tossing around like lit bags of shit? Which ones do you think don’t get nearly enough public derision?

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31 Comments leave one →
  1. unscrambled permalink
    November 14, 2010 9:33 am

    Here is where I proudly out myself as a fan of “Heaven’s Gate.” I don’t need a film to make sense for me to like it!

    BRING ON THE ROLLERSKATING SCENE!

    Is it a hot mess? Yes.
    Do I love animal cruelty? No.

    But, do I like it when people take a giant studio budget and take risks with the film? Vehemently. I love a big try with a big fail way more than I like a no-risk perfectly palatable (I see you, George Clooney middlebrow thrilleresques).

    I’ve never seen “Final Cut”–I’m looking forward to it.

  2. November 14, 2010 10:06 am

    I love you, Unscrambled!!! You know I love a campy mess, particularly a campy mess with a backstory. I had to include Heaven’s Gate because it fails in so many ways that it’s amazing.

  3. November 14, 2010 12:13 pm

    I think there are some legitimate reasons why Popeye gets trashed so often, not the least of which is “Why is Robert Altman doing a Popeye Movie?!” Seriously, Popeye would be on the short list of cartoon characters that shouldn’t have even been considered for a film because they are so two-dimensional: Popeye is happy. Something/someone interrupts the happiness. Popeye reaches for his can of spinach which he may or may not get on the first try. Eventually eats it, his muscles become metal from all of the iron in those leafy vegetables and he defeats his foe. That’s it! Nearly every Popeye cartoon ever made! The formula was as dull as, say, Casper the Friendly Ghost (who ALSO got a big screen adaptation)! Granted Casper was aimed at kids but still!

    But the main point is Altman is noted for his angular looks at complicated situations and characters that have, if not depth, at least interesting texture, which is why Popeye stands alone as a complete mystery. Yes, the auteur tried to layer on the story of Popeye and Father, and some other stuff about the citizens of Sweethaven… but let’s be really honest: Popeye is an annoying character. Robin Williams is an annoying actor. Annoying times Annoying equals Annoying Squared!

  4. hsofia permalink
    November 14, 2010 12:58 pm

    Hehe, @NYCpenpusher – I have only seen Popeye as a child. I loved Popeye the cartoon (at least, I watched it often), but even as an eight or nine year old I knew Robin Williams was miscast as Popeye.

    The Postman is ten times worse than Waterworld. I don’t think Waterworld was so bad – I’ve seen equally bad original sci fi channel movies, but I think what made it so atrocious was how EXPENSIVE it was. And of course, it came on the heels of Dances with Wolves, which critics had gotten themselves into a foaming frenzy about.

    I liked K19: The Widowmaker – it had me on the edge of my seat! Oh wait, that was U571. Never mind.

    I have good radar for box office bombs (or else I’m just behind the curve), so I see very few of them. Others that could be on the list as deserving the scorn heaped on them include The Scarlet Letter and Battlefield Earth, which I tried to watch earlier this year to judge for myself. Even the Hubster, who can tolerate most any awful movie, warned me against it. I could only make it halfway through before I was interrupted (thank god), and I never finished it. Gigli was also ridiculous; it’s impossible to understand how Kevin Smith spent that $70M.

    Underrated bombs for me would be The 13th Warrior. I have a soft spot for that movie, and have seen it a bunch of times. It came out when I was still Muslim, so all the Muslims I knew were excited to see ourselves in a movie. The book was much better, yes, but even with all the production drama, I found it watchable and enjoyable. Another one is The Iron Giant – no singing dogs or a Phil Collins score, but this movie is one of the best animated family films the US has ever made, so I don’t know what the hell happened.

  5. November 14, 2010 4:13 pm

    @hsofia: Battlefield Earth is an example of being exactly worthy of the scorn — I enjoy terrible movies (I see you, Southland Tales), but this was both boring and incoherent.

    @snarky: Town & Country! omg, I was so excited when I saw that cast and recorded the movie and didn’t make it past the first 10 minutes, after two attempts. I always feel bad when people harp on Popeye, I didn’t think it was that terrible, but I was a kid when it came out and if it had just been properly marketed as a kids’ movie, it wouldn’t be on so many bomb lists. I wish more people talked about the terribleness of Red Planet — that is an underrated bomb in my opinion.

  6. November 14, 2010 4:16 pm

    I think Spielberg’s 1941 belongs in the “underrated” category. What a waste of some good comedic talent, and this came in the midst of what I think was Spielberg’s most productive period… smack in the middle of Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders and E.T.

  7. unscrambled permalink
    November 14, 2010 4:21 pm

    @ snarky: the love is redoubled back at you.

    @ hsofia: I can not watch “The Iron Giant” without crying. It is too much! I have no idea why this movie isn’t mandatory viewing. No princesses.

    @ raymond: “Southland Tales” is your “Heaven’s Gate!” I didn’t put it together until now!

  8. November 14, 2010 4:29 pm

    But the main point is Altman is noted for his angular looks at complicated situations and characters that have, if not depth, at least interesting texture, which is why Popeye stands alone as a complete mystery. Yes, the auteur tried to layer on the story of Popeye and Father, and some other stuff about the citizens of Sweethaven… but let’s be really honest: Popeye is an annoying character. Robin Williams is an annoying actor. Annoying times Annoying equals Annoying Squared!

    I would actually place Popeye along side another auteur WTF moment: Annie. Growing up I thought there were two John Hustons: one my parents were always gushing about and the one who directed Annie.

  9. November 14, 2010 4:33 pm

    I think Spielberg’s 1941 belongs in the “underrated” category. What a waste of some good comedic talent, and this came in the midst of what I think was Spielberg’s most productive period… smack in the middle of Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders and E.T.

    1941 is so terrible just thinking about it makes my tummy hurt.

    re: Battlestar Earth. I would place this in the overrated. It’s a foul stench of a movie, but I feel like I’m constantly being reminded at how spectacularly it bombed at the box office and how bad it is.

  10. November 14, 2010 4:39 pm

    I thought Battlefield Earth was overratedly bad until I actually tried to watch it, which was only a few months ago.

  11. November 14, 2010 4:50 pm

    How far in did you make it? I made it in about 8 minutes and I had to turn it loose.

  12. November 14, 2010 4:54 pm

    I think I went all the way to minute 24, though I walked in and out of the room a few times during it to take long bathroom breaks and get snacks and drinks.

    Cutthroat Island is another overrated bomb. I’m sure it’s terrible, I’ve never even tried it, but I can’t imagine it deserved the utter destruction of poor Matthew Modine’s career.

  13. November 14, 2010 5:05 pm

    Cutthroat Island is definitely bad and worthy of scorn, but so much of the discourse around it is couched in thinly veiled sexism, that I tend to ignore most of the mainstream criticism of the film that specifically relates to Geena Davis’ performance.

  14. renniejoy permalink
    November 14, 2010 5:29 pm

    I also can’t stand “A Christmas Story”, so there are at least two of us. 🙂

  15. November 14, 2010 6:15 pm

    @Snarky’s I seriously forget (or more accurately mentally block) the fact that John Huston directed Annie!

    But speaking to Popeye and Annie, I think those directors were just grabbing whatever work they could get at that moment. Looking at the wiki for Popeye (for whatever that’s worth) it suggests that Altman was like the 4th choice for the film! I suspect something similar occurred in the Huston/Annie scenario. At least that would make it all make sense.

  16. cindy permalink
    November 14, 2010 6:25 pm

    Well, Will Patton’s in The Postman (on a horse!) so that’s why I have a soft spot for it, but that said I wouldn’t watch it again. I haven’t seen any other of these bad movies, although you can’t escape hearing about Heaven’s Gate and Waterworld. Hmmm, useless response, but I wanted to type the words Will Patton. There, I did it twice.

  17. Hsofia permalink
    November 14, 2010 10:30 pm

    Oops, looks like I got my underrated/overrated mixed up.

  18. Hsofia permalink
    November 14, 2010 10:32 pm

    @Cindy – Will Patton was enjoyable to watch in The Postman, I’ll give it that. I remember liking the little girl, too, who grew up to play Mac on Veronica Mars. (I’m sure she has other accomplishments, but that’s the one I know.)

  19. November 14, 2010 10:49 pm

    I wonder if Ashton finally saw Nothing But Trouble and that’s when their marriage started going sour.

  20. November 14, 2010 10:59 pm

    I can’t stop!! After I was forced to sit through North (though can’t remember the circumstances…..a friend’s birthday, perhaps?), I wanted to punch Rob Reiner in the face. That movie doesn’t show up nearly enough on flop lists, considering it had Elijah Wood and Seinfeld people.

  21. November 14, 2010 11:57 pm

    I can’t stop!! After I was forced to sit through North (though can’t remember the circumstances…..a friend’s birthday, perhaps?), I wanted to punch Rob Reiner in the face. That movie doesn’t show up nearly enough on flop lists, considering it had Elijah Wood and Seinfeld people.

    North was on my shit list too. It’s a total dog and yet Reiner’s career is always described as though he’s never seen the business of a bad review or a career misfire.

    Showgirls and Glitter get picked on a lot, but did anyone actually think they were going to be fantastic films? I mean I didn’t. I knew what I had signed up for. I don’t know what these other people were doing when trailers were being screened or when the cast/plot were being announced.

  22. November 15, 2010 12:02 am

    @raymondj who shows North at a birthday party? Talk about abusive parents!

  23. November 15, 2010 12:13 am

    North makes Spirit of ’76 (another Reiner venture, this time with his son) look like a masterpiece.

  24. November 15, 2010 12:18 am

    But speaking to Popeye and Annie, I think those directors were just grabbing whatever work they could get at that moment. Looking at the wiki for Popeye (for whatever that’s worth) it suggests that Altman was like the 4th choice for the film! I suspect something similar occurred in the Huston/Annie scenario. At least that would make it all make sense.

    Wow, Hal Ashby? What, they didn’t think Harold Becker was good enough?

  25. November 15, 2010 12:26 am

    Maybe this is way obvious, but there’s also Super Mario Bros. which I guess someone thought would be a genius concept in marketing: the first ever video game turned Hollywood motion picture, since everyone was playing it, everyone was surely going to see it. Two Italian plumbers, Mario and Luigi. So who do they cast? Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo! Of course! That makes perfect sense. Not to mention one of the catchiest pieces of video game music in history (I know you’re humming it in your head right now) and what? It’s not in the film? Naah. Why use that? Dennis Hopper as the suave lizard, but give him something to do? Why would we do that?

    Since people rarely ever mention this one, I’m going to say it’s underrated as a dog.

  26. November 15, 2010 1:27 am

    Oh that thing is a real dog. Also, Street Fighter, but nobody says anything since it’s the final screen appearance of Raul Julia. But that thing’s a real turkey.

  27. November 15, 2010 12:31 pm

    Street Fighter was terrible, but seemed much better after watching the reboot of last year — double bomb!

    who shows North at a birthday party? Talk about abusive parents!

    um, it wasn’t shown at a birthday party by parents, it was a teenage outing to the movie theater.

  28. Val permalink
    November 15, 2010 1:51 pm

    I’m with Hsofia…13th Warrior is tons of fun. The new language immersion/acquisition scene alone makes it worthwhile. And it makes a fine world prehistory movie drinking game: atlatls DRINK! goddess figurines DRINK! extras on horseback with insufficiently hidden stirrups DRINK!

    Battlefield Earth…ugh. It’s early in the season, but I gotta say “stink, stank, stunk…”

    My choice for a recent dog: Where the Wild Things Are. A classic of children’s literature with great actors, an apparently limitless design and costume budget, and a ton of artistic “vision”. The movie manages to be boring, but has moments of terror that render it particularly troubling…for children. Nice work! Can we lose this thing and just watch the trailer over and over?.

  29. November 15, 2010 5:14 pm

    My choice for a recent dog: Where the Wild Things Are. A classic of children’s literature with great actors, an apparently limitless design and costume budget, and a ton of artistic “vision”. The movie manages to be boring, but has moments of terror that render it particularly troubling…for children. Nice work! Can we lose this thing and just watch the trailer over and over?.

    Yes! So much this!

  30. hsofia permalink
    November 17, 2010 11:07 pm

    I didn’t like Where the Wild Things Are right after viewing – I reserved judgment while watching because it was so strange and unexpected for me. It was only upon reflection that I decided I liked it. Hubby summed it up as, “being in a family is hard.” These days I read the story at least 2 or 3 times daily to my kidlet (and have it memorized), and I think the movie is very true to the spirit. But it’s definitely for all the grown up Maxes (Max’s?) of the world.

  31. Val permalink
    November 18, 2010 1:42 am

    @hsophia

    I had read the book so often, to myself, to my child, that I was…conflicted when I saw it was to be filmed. Then Sendak approved the adaptation and the trailer made me cry. My letdown was big, I tell ya… The book is brief…I get that a backstory was required. And they got stuff right, too. I grew up with snow forts and parkas. Most movies fail so badly with cold that I am thrilled to see anything resembling winter on film!

    I think Max’s(?!) movie age is a problem, though. An eight year old doesn’t get to bite people and terrorize his family just because his creator wants him to be able to debate his emotional cake and smash it too. That seemed dishonest to me.

    I thought the film captured the spirit of the book a few times…that 1st boat bit, for sure. My imagined Max is four, however. So I was bored yet creeped out and just spent a lot of the time wondering about filmmakers and their issues.

    I have to learn not to expect much from book/movie adaptations.

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