The titles of 1941, One From The Heart, and Heaven’s Gate have become glib punch lines, lazy shorthand for filmmaking at its most comically misguided. Yet the scorn heaped on movies that dive-bomb spectacularly at the box office obscures the fact that they often failed due to a raging surplus of ambition and ideas. In this age of timidity, safety, sequels, remakes, and focus-group testing, such epic vision, however misbegotten or haphazardly realized, should be hailed. Yes, even when it crops up in Gigli. With that in mind, The A.V. Club presents 10 notorious flops worthy of a second chance.
What it tries to do: What doesn’t it try to do? An undertaking only slightly less crazily ambitious than Francis Ford Coppola’s previous film, Apocalypse Now, One From The Heart aspires to reinvent the vocabulary of cinema with its revolutionary blend of theater, music, John Cassavetes-style relationship drama, live television, Tom Waits songs, lurid neon sets, and blatant artifice.
Why it failed: Coppola’s insanely ambitious cinematic experimentation and garish Vegas nightscapes tend to overpower the film’s intentionally thin plot, a modest love story about a pair of bickering working-class lovers (Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr) contemplating trysts with seductive strangers (Nastassja Kinski and Raul Julia). Not even the vaunted marquee value of a superstar like Frederic Forrest could keep this picture from losing a bundle.
Why it’s worth seeing: Especially today, Coppola’s mad-prophet ambition remains a wonder to behold. Though it realizes only part of its Herculean ambition, One From The Heart points the way toward a whole new way of thinking about film. Coppola aimed to revolutionize the musical genre, but instead ended up in an exhilarating dead end.
What it tries to do: MTV’s The Tom Green Show briefly thrived on outrageous provocation, but Green’s debut feature pushes that aesthetic to radical new extremes of anti-comedy. There’s something mesmerizingly self-destructive about the whole enterprise, as if Green wants infamy more than laughs, and the result surely ranks among the more curious films ever green-lighted by a major studio.
Why it failed: It takes so long to make a movie—even a cheap comedy like this—that trends that were popular during pre-production tend to be yesterday’s news by the time a film comes out. Green’s 15 minutes had already elapsed when his film hit theaters, but it would have been a career-killer even if they hadn’t. Green’s TV pranks were an edgy precursor to tamer MTV fare like Punk’d, but Freddy Got Fingered was like one gigantic prank, a stink-bomb placed under the seats of unsuspecting viewers.
Why it’s worth seeing: Freddy Got Fingered may not pass as entertainment, exactly, but it contains scenes that are so singularly offensive, they must be seen to be believed: Green swinging a newborn baby around by its umbilical cord, covering the mother and the hospital walls in blood; Green satisfying his disabled girlfriend’s fetish by rapping her legs with bamboo reeds; and a triumphant finale where Green and his father (Rip Torn) are showered in elephant ejaculate.
What it tries to do: Joe Versus The Volcano could be called the original Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, except that romantic comedies are never brave enough to try something this strange and enchanting. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley attempts to top the whimsical magic of his Moonstruck script with wild flights of fancy, leading Hanks and Ryan (who plays three roles) to a tropical island where the Polynesian-Jewish natives (led by Abe Vigoda!) love orange soda.
Why it failed: Clearly not everyone was enchanted: The New York Times, for one, tagged it as the flattest comedy since Howard The Duck, and other reviews weren’t much kinder. Sandwiched between Punchline, The ‘Burbs, Turner & Hooch, and Bonfire Of The Vanities, Joe Versus The Volcano appeared during Hanks’ biggest losing streak since early in his career, and for all the film’s loveable eccentricities, it tends to get lumped in there for posterity.
Why it’s worth seeing: If it works on you, the film conveys nothing less than the joy of being alive—it openly fantasizes about breaking the shackles of the workaday world and finding adventure, romance, and beauty that exist beyond the suck-suck-sucking of florescent lights. And only the stone-hearted can avoid being touched by Hanks adrift on the ocean, facing dehydration and certain death, merrily strumming a song on his ukulele without a care in the world.
What it tries to do: Following up The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino was given free rein to make his dream project, and he dreamed big. Retelling the story of the Johnson County War, which brought Wyoming cattle barons into conflict with poor immigrants, Cimino spent a then-stunning $36 million attempting to tell the whole story of America by recreating the Old West and shooting an unglamorous epic of moral conflicts, violence, gang rape, and lots and lots of barren landscapes.
Why it failed: The initial release of Heaven’s Gate was nearly four hours long, but it was pulled from theaters, then re-released at about two and a half hours. It could be argued that United Artists’ lack of confidence did it in. But no, Heaven’s Gate is a mess, with confusing relationships, no narrative muscle, and a pace seemingly inspired by a slow breeze blowing through the high grass.
Why it’s worth seeing: As an exercise in poetic imagery, it justifies its run time. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond revives the sepia sadness of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and the cast—including Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken, and many other names of note—looks like it’s plugged into some powerful emotional current that the audience must just be missing. It would be nice to claim that the film which drove the last nail into the coffin of ‘70s cinema and killed United Artists is actually a lost masterpiece. It isn’t. But it’s got a quality all its own.
What it tries to do: Steven Spielberg wanted to pay homage to the movie conventions of the ‘40s in the counterculture style of the ‘70s. Meanwhile, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale produced a spoofy, Mad magazine-inspired script that essentially repeated their winning formula from the previous year’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, encapsulating the grand American pageant in the course of one busy day.
Why it failed: The words “big budget” and “comedy” should rarely appear in the same sentence. Spielberg demonstrates his lack of feel for the relaxed, slobby Saturday Night Live sensibility, and 1941 suffers from a kind of bloat not seen since the overbearing, self-satisfied, star-studded affairs of the mid-’60s.
Why it’s worth seeing: Like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, 1941 contains a handful of smashing setpieces that played like gangbusters at the rushes and still work today. The USO dancing sequence is the most eye-popping, followed closely by the climactic demolition, but 1941's best moments are subtler, like Robert Stack getting emotional over a screening of Dumbo, and Slim Pickens bickering with the Japanese over his stool sample. Ultimately, the movie fits in reasonably well with Spielberg’s other war movies—which, like his fantasy movies, tend to be about how manmade systems break down.
What it tries to do: Writer/director Martin Brest tries to riff playfully and irreverently on gender and sexuality within the context of a light-footed crime comedy.
Why it failed: It doesn’t help that Gigli’s title could only be pronounced by the late-night talk-show hosts mocking it, or that it starred a tabloid couple far past their media oversaturation point. But beyond these superficial elements, it’s hard to know where to start when assessing the film’s flaws: Elements like slack pacing, a bloated run time, a shapeless, self-satisfied script, and a Baywatch-obsessed retarded kid are only the beginning. The public and media couldn’t wait for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez to screw up, so Gigli must have seemed like an answer to their prayers.
Why it’s worth seeing: The film’s historic level of miscalculation alone gives it a distinct train-wreck watchability, and any film that features a mentally handicapped youngster rapping “Baby Got Back” in its entirety can’t be accused of lacking chutzpah. Also, Christopher Walken’s cameo as a deranged cop is a masterful display of undiluted Walken weirdness.
What it tries to do: Like One From The Heart, New York, New York sets out to revolutionize the musical form by injecting it with the gritty neo-realism, antic improvisation, and jagged emotions of vintage John Cassavetes while simultaneously playing up the genre’s overt stylization.
Why it failed: American audiences in the ‘70s were famously adventurous and open-minded, but even they drew the line at shelling out hard-earned dough on a grim, gritty, three-hour-long musical largely devoid of sympathetic characters. It didn’t help that the film sought to revive a moribund genre, or that it had to face the high expectations created by Scorsese’s previous film, Taxi Driver.
Why it’s worth seeing: New York, New York doesn’t succeed as a whole, but individual scenes and setpieces have an electric snap, and Scorsese remains a towering master of his craft, pumping the film full of more ideas than it knows what to do with. It’s fascinating watching an auteur with such a strong personality tackle a genre as tough to bend as the musical.
What it tries to do: An international production team and Walt Disney Studios hoped to recreate the light, anything-can-happen feel of Michael Anderson’s 1956 Jules Verne adaptation, complete with cameo appearances by major stars.
Why it failed: The movie’s real stars—Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan—are kind of hard to spot in the shadow of guests like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kathy Bates. The movie seems to be beyond the talents of director Frank Coraci, who falls back on clatter when he can’t figure out what to do.
Why it’s worth seeing: Coraci also finds an appealing, fanciful tone, most evident in the inventive animated transitions between balloon stops. The genuinely sweet love-hate relationship between the harried Chan and the smug Coogan brings resonance to their slapstick antics, and scene-stealing performances by the likes of Jim Broadbent and Mark Addy make the film entertaining in a please-pay-no-attention-to-our-ginormous-budget kind of way. Around The World In 80 Days also gets bonus points for its cleverest cameo, when Chan’s stranded in the American West and runs into his Shanghai Noon co-star Owen Wilson, driving through with his brother Luke.
What it tries to do: Elia Kazan’s Harold Pinter-scripted adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel aspires to be a bittersweet, epic elegy for a lost era of Hollywood glamour, bringing together the giants of the past (Kazan, Tony Curtis, Ray Milland, Robert Mitchum) with the brash new turks of the film-brat world (Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson).
Why it failed: The Last Tycoon’s meticulous recreation of old Hollywood and its once-in-a-lifetime cast fight a losing battle against a leaden central romance between De Niro and the android-like Ingrid Boulting. Also, the film’s immersion in Old Hollywood probably didn’t appeal to audiences enthralled with the brash rebelliousness of New Hollywood.
Why it’s worth seeing: De Niro’s lead performance is a marvel of hyper-efficiency. He doesn’t waste a gesture or a word in his masterful take on a man locked in perpetual forward motion. A historic, riveting late-movie scene in which the conservative, sober De Niro gets tanked and battles physically and mentally with Marx-loving union man Jack Nicholson makes the film worth catching, as does the bravura “Makin’ Pictures” sequence, in which De Niro delivers a succinct, indelible lecture on storytelling to a cantankerous screenwriter.
What it tries to do: Following up Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni attempts to bring the spirit of a Fellini carnival to Carlo Collodi’s much-loved 19th-century fairy tale.
Why it failed: Putting aside the last-minute cuts and dubbing before its American release—which left Breckin Meyer standing in for Benigni’s unmistakable voice—Pinocchio suffers from Benigni’s decision to cast himself as the puppet who wants to be a real boy. Benigni was 50 at the time, and he comes off as more creepy than whimsical, especially in the scenes where he can’t control his famous nose. The casting of Benigni’s real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi as the stern, motherly Blue Fairy only adds to the ick factor.
Why it’s worth seeing: And yet, like so many films on this list, Pinocchio features a weird integrity that makes it difficult to forget. Benigni creates a storybook world and fills it with mad ideas and the crisp visuals of cinematographer Dante Spinotti. And while casting himself in the lead was a bad move, Benigni throws himself into the man-child role. When Braschi catches him misbehaving, the scared, heartbroken look on Benigni’s face—a perfect, wordless expression of the way a child learns right from wrong—almost rescues the whole endeavor. Almost.