Smart Actors, Dumb Movies: 10 Questionable Career Choices

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A 2011 Oscar winner, another nominee, an acclaimed director, and the writer/star of one of TV’s most delightfully subversive comedies couldn’t convince audiences to see Your Highness, which opened last weekend to odious reviews and bad box office. What went wrong? Well, it is certainly possible that the target audience for a stoner parody of sword-and-sorcery movies was a little too narrow to justify a $50 million budget. Or it could just be the execution; “Like members of some post-Dadaist collective,” Time’s Richard Corliss notes, “the filmmakers have dedicated themselves to memorializing every first, wrong impulse that popped into their heads, while ruthlessly excising any vestige of wit or narrative niceties as being too linear, dude.” Whatever the reason, it certainly seems like yet another strange choice for Natalie Portman, whose first release after her Oscar nomination was a dopey, formulaic “friends with benefits” sex comedy. (As for James Franco, we’ve given up on guessing his motives for doing anything.)

Putting together a filmography is always a crap shoot for actors; the process of assembling a major studio production involves so many variables, from studio interference to directorial whims to budgetary concerns to a million other little things that sometimes you just can’t know what the final product will be. But in some cases, you just can’t imagine what a seemingly intelligent, acclaimed actor saw on the page, and how he ever imagined it could be a good movie — and we’re not talking about early on, when a hungry actor takes any role available. We’re talking post-fame, sometimes post-Oscar. After the jump, we’ll take a look at some of our favorite actors, and some of their most absolutely inexplicable choices.

Jamie Foxx in Stealth

Foxx won a well-deserved Best Actor trophy in spring of 2005 for his brilliant portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray. Unfortunately for Foxx, he already had his next movie in the can — the late-summer Top Gun rip-off Stealth, where he played second fiddle to Josh Lucas (remember when he was gonna be the next big thing?) and Jessica Biel’s bikini. Directed by Rob Cohen, the Rhodes scholar behind XXX and the original The Fast and the Furious, Stealth is so dumb that, at one point, Foxx objects to their captain (Sam Shepard, slumming badly) that he doesn’t like the idea of adding another member to their team, because there’s three of them, and three is a lucky number. It’s also a prime number, he explains. He then proceeds to helpfully define, for his captain and his trained co-pilots, what a prime number is. “I guess they didn’t get to primes at Annapolis,” Roger Ebert noted. Since Stealth is major Hollywood movie and Foxx is a black guy, he dies early on — making him far luckier than audiences who had to sit through the whole thing.

Michael Caine in Jaws: The Revenge

On March 30, 1987, Michael Caine won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his heartbreaking, nuanced work in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Alas, Caine couldn’t be there to pick up the Oscar — he was off re-shooting the ending to the third Jawssequel. In the 1980s, Caine and Gene Hackman seemed locked in a perpetual competition to see who could work more; Caine appeared in 21 theatrical releases (and a TV miniseries) during the decade. The actor has been refreshingly candid about his motives for the less-acclaimed portions of his output, admitting to roles he took on solely to collect a paycheck. Jaws: The Revenge offered a handsome one, along with the chance to for a relaxing location shoot in the Bahamas. Of the final product, the actor famously joked, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!”

Forest Whitaker in The Experiment

Whitaker has become something of the Michael Caine of the 2000s; he won Best Actor for his chilling portrayal of Idi Amin in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland, but you’d never know it from his subsequent filmography, a mix of turkeys (Repo Men, Vantage Point), long-forgotten Crash-style ensemble pieces (Powder Blue, Fragments, The Air I Breathe), and countless straight-to-DVD efforts (Hurricane Season, My Own Love Song). One of the worst is The Experiment, which bypassed a theatrical release in spite of the fact that it starred not only Whitaker but fellow Best Actor winner Adrien Brody. A remake of the German film Das Experiment, itself inspired by the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, the picture pits Whitaker and Brody on opposite sides of a faux imprisonment; Whitaker is a kindhearted churchgoer who, given this modicum of power, immediately turns into a hard-drinking, abusive monster. Whitaker is forced to play the picture’s least subtle moment, in which the first flexing of his authority gives his character an actual raging hard-on (close-up of his bulging pants). Literal much?

Cuba Gooding Jr. in Boat Trip

Gooding has become the go-to cautionary tale for post-Oscar career choices; he followed his Best Supporting Actor win (for Jerry Maguire) with a roll call of some of the worst movies in recent memory, including Chill Factor, Pearl Harbor, Radio, Norbit, and Daddy Day Camp. And then (shudder) there’s Boat Trip. Gooding is teamed with Horatio Sanz in this 2002 “comedy.” The duo play best buddies, unlucky in love, who decide to go on a singles cruise to meet chicks, but they insult the travel agent, so he books them on a gay cruise. Ha… ha? Of course there’s gay panic, but then Gooding finds that pretending to be gay can get him close to a hot cruise line employee. Oh, and then the Swedish bikini team crash-lands near the boat. No, seriously. This is a real movie that exists. Take our word for it. Don’t see it for yourself. “There has been some concern that Boat Trip, the new Cuba Gooding Jr.-Horatio Sanz comedy, might be harmful to gay men,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris. “This is not entirely true. Boat Trip is bad for everybody.”

Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo in Just Like Heaven

Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress for her wonderful turn as June Carter Cash in the 2005 film Walk the Line. There were not many mentions that award season of her other 2005 release, the romantic comedy/fantasy Just Like Heaven. Here’s the plot: on her way to a blind date, Elizabeth (Witherspoon) is involved in a serious car wreck. Nothing like a major automobile accident to kick off your rom-com on the right note. Widower David (Mark Ruffalo) moves into her former apartment, and whaddaya know, he sees her ghost, or presence, or something, even though no one else can. In spite of the whole walking-through-walls, no-physical-properties thing, they fall in love, only to find that she’s not actually dead, just in a coma — and they’re about to pull the plug. Did we mention Jon Heder is in this thing? Jon Heder, aka Napoleon Dynamite, is in this thing. Ruffalo is an effortlessly charismatic actor, and Witherspoon can do light comedy with the best of them, but, as Globe and Mail’s Stephen Cole noted, “Just Like Heaven is more like purgatory.”

Meryl Streep in She-Devil

In 1989, as now, Meryl Streep was one of the world’s most respected actresses. But her work up until that point had been almost entirely dramatic: Sophie’s Choice, Out of Africa, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Kramer vs. Kramer. Streep is also a gifted comedienne, as later efforts (Adaptation, The Devil Wears Prada, A Prairie Home Companion) would attest, and she wanted to shake off her “serious actress” label and do some funny roles. So she did a run of comedies in the early ‘90s, and most were well-received (Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her, Postcards from the Edge). Her comedic debut, however, was decidedly ill-advised: she chose to make She-Devil, a supernatural black comedy co-starring Roseanne Barr (who sported a giant facial mole for the role. Subtle!). Streep came out relatively unscathed (“In better movies the contributions by the individual performers are not easily identified,” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote. “There is no blurring of credits here”), but the film’s critical and commercial failure short-circuited Barr’s movie career before it even started.

Johnny Depp in Arizona Dream

Depp was not yet the Disney tentpole-anchoring superstar that he is today when he made this wholly inexplicable picture back in 1991, but he was certainly enough of a name to steer clear of this mess. Depp plays Axel Blackmar, a reasonably happy fish tagger in New York who is brought back to his home in Arizona by his cousin Paul (Vincent Gallo), to work for his uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis), a car salesman. That’s as close as the movie gets to a plot; it soon degenerates into random, befuddling sequences. Who knows what’s going on with the Eskimo opening, or the flying fish, or the long (long) scene of characters blindfolded and searching for a piñata in a wind storm, or the moment where Depp wheels around the house acting like a chicken, clucking along while Lili Taylor plays the accordion. There’s no plausible explanation for those scenes, or most of the others either– Emir Kusturica co-wrote and directed it, and we’ll bet he doesn’t know what the hell’s going on in it either. The best we can put together is that the purposeful intention was to confuse and confound the audience. If that’s the case, then the picture is a huge success.

Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti in Shoot ‘Em Up

Nobody does cool braggadocio like Owen, and nobody can play the frustrated middle manager like Giamatti. Both were clearly at the top of their game when they teamed for the 2007 comic thriller Shoot ‘Em Up. The previous year, Owen fronted the brilliant Children of Men, while Giamatti was still luxuriating in the acclaim of his definitive work in Sideways. What either of them saw in this torpid screenplay is beyond our grasp. Trigger-happy Owen is saddled with an endless stream of unforgivable post-kill one-liners, and the one bit of characterization given to Giamatti’s character (he has a nagging wife who calls him on his cell phone at inopportune moments) is tiresome from the jump and has a skull-crushingly bad pay-off. The film’s tone — supplied by writer/director Michael Davis, who helmed the equally clumsy and uneven 100 Girls and Eight Days a Week — is all over the place. It wants to be a cartoon (complete with a Bugs Bunny-esque carrot motif), but there’s an ugliness to the sex and violence that keeps us from going along with it. Four years on, Shoot ‘Em Up is a long-forgotten blip on both actors’ otherwise-noteworthy filmography.

Those are just a few of our picks. What bad films do you wish your favorite actors would have kept away from?