My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
At the heart of the legendarily reviled 2013 sketch comedy abomination Movie 43 lies a surprisingly serious question that cuts to the very nature of cinema. What, the film implicitly asks, makes a movie a movie? Is it simply a matter of filling 70 minutes or so of screen time with what can generously be deemed professional footage? Is a movie a movie if it has a story with a beginning, middle, and end? Are stars what make a movie a movie, with a certain level of polish, sophistication, and quality? Is a movie a proper movie if it plays in theaters?
I ask because I have now seen Movie 43 twice, when I reviewed it and again for this column, and I’m still not sure that it deserves to be called a movie. I’m tempted to wrap the Movie part of its title in ironic quotation marks to indicate that it’s a “movie” only in the most forgiving possible sense. Sure, Movie 43 has stars aplenty. In fact, never before have so many stars wasted their talents so egregiously and tastelessly. The ridiculously star-studded cast (Halle Berry, Kate Winslet, Chris Pratt, Anna Faris, Elizabeth Banks, Emma Stone, Justin Long, Gerard Butler, Kristen Bell, Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, Common, Greg Kinnear, Dennis Quaid, Richard Gere, John Hodgman, Stephen Merchant, and many more) all seemingly signed on to show what good sports they were, and instead dove deep into a bottomless pool of masochism. The film is such an insult to everyone and everything that the truest way to honor its cast’s pointless sacrifices is to avoid it.
Do you love Anna Faris and Chris Pratt? Do they just seem like the coolest, funniest, most charming and appealing couple ever? Wouldn’t you love to hang out with them, and just drink in their childlike lovability? I can’t get enough of this popular twosome, which is why I’m sorry that I have once again seen these actors stumble their way through a one-joke sketch in Movie 43 in which Pratt’s character is flummoxed by girlfriend Faris asking him to poop on her in a sexual fashion. Pratt’s awkward sexual adventurer is schooled in the ways of fecal loving by a friend played by J.B. Smoove, whose appearance here suggests what Curb Your Enthusiasm might feel like if Larry sometimes asked his pals for advice in integrating explosive defecation into his sex life. I really hope there is no fan fiction of this sort, and I damn Movie 43 for making me think about these things in the first place.
Movie 43 has a rough framework for its lustily scatological sketches, but it seems awfully generous to deem it a plot. The film’s linking structure finds a sad and desperate filmmaker played by Dennis Quaid pitching movie ideas to a sad and desperate studio executive played by Greg Kinnear. These sad and desperate ideas then come limping glumly to life in vignettes populated by Hollywood’s least discriminating stars.
The first idea Quaid’s hack filmmaker proposes is a Bridget Jones’s Diary-style exploration of the adorable neuroses of a relatable English single gal played by Kate Winslet. Winslet is set up on a blind date with a dashing man about town (song and dance man Hugh Jackman) who has but a single regrettable physical blemish: There appear to be a hairy pal of testicles jutting out of his neck, where his Adam’s apple should be.
Winslet’s mortified single gal can’t think about anything but her date’s repulsive neck testicles, but no one else seems to notice them. The filmmakers are defiantly throwing down the gauntlet. They’re letting people know exactly what kind of a movie they’re in for, one where enormous international stars degrade themselves in sketches that introduce their hoary premise immediately, then flop around for a few minutes like a dying fish before the sketch finally dies and another DOA premise can be similarly abused.
Watching the neck-testicle sketch made me feel sorry for everyone involved. I felt bad for Winslet and Jackman, primarily, because they’re the beautiful, famous faces suffering through this puerile nonsense. But I also feel sorry for the crew and the supporting cast and Winslet and Jackman’s families. Jackman has done a lot of great things over the course of his career, but thanks to Movie 43, that career includes a movie where he wore prosthetics to make it look like testicles are protruding proudly out of his neck.
The sketch that follows similarly has a one joke premise, but for the first and last time, that joke is inspired. Real-life couple Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber are gloriously deadpan as parents who home-school their teenaged son in an attempt to replicate not just the academic aspect of high school but the emotional dynamic as well. To that end, they strive to give their boy an authentically traumatic high school experience, complete with bullying, abuse and creepy sexual advances from both mom and dad.
Movie 43 traffics in facile shock but it is utterly devoid of surprises. It’s as if the filmmakers are diligently working through a checklist of taboos, and adding a few new aberrations to the mix. They’re so relentlessly intent on shocking and offending that they forget to amuse or entertain. It’s the kind of movie where Seth MacFarlane shows up just long enough to pitch a studio on a project he crows is Schindler’s List meets Family Guy. What is an uber-hack comedy without a reference to Hitler? And how perfect is it that MacFarlane’s eminently punchable mouth is the one delivering this most predictable of jokes? Movie 43 doesn’t hold anything sacred, even the genocide of millions during World War II.
Subsequent sketches involve a grocery store where a clerk and his ex-girlfriend use the intercom to broadcast the stomach-churning nature of their sexual history, and “I-Babe,” an Apple and iPod parody about a new music-delivery system that looks and feels like a gorgeous naked woman. The problem with this iPod is that customers can’t seem to keep their phalluses out of it, leading to all manner of hopelessly mangled penises.
The perversions even continue after the movie shambles its way to a close around 77 minutes in, when the fourth wall is broken and extended outtakes and credits give way to one final insult. Part animation, part live-action, “Beezel” asks, “What would Garfield be like if Garfield desperately wanted to fuck owner Jon, and was ferociously willing to undermine any and all competitors?”
The ugly-adorable character design of cartoon cat Beezel makes the segment more incongruously cute than anything trading on inter-species homosexual, live-action/animation sexual desire has any right to be. “Beezel” at least has the decency to bring this nightmare to a long-overdue close.
With brother Bobby, Movie 43 “mastermind” Peter Farrelly helped usher gross-out gags to delirious new heights of popularity with Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. The extraordinary success of their films unleashed a flood of imitators, some of which the brothers were involved with as producers. So it feels like Movie 43, deliberately or otherwise, is conclusively killing off the gross-out comedy both by being grosser and more brutally unfunny than anything that came before it. There is a sweetness at the core of the Farrelly brothers’ best work (There’s Something About Mary, Stuck On You, Dumb & Dumber) that is entirely missing here. It’s as if Peter Farrelly is setting fire to an entire misguided subgenre he helped refine and popularize.
Vulgarity is supposed to be liberating. The appeal of shameless raunch is that it frees us from the dreary, imprisoning dictates of respectability and propriety and ushers us into a realm where anything can happen. That’s the timeless power of Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and There’s Something About Mary. But there’s nothing freeing or surprising about Movie 43. As soon as a premise is introduced, we know exactly where it’s headed: in the feces- and ejaculate-slicked path of whatever’s grossest.
Movie 43 feels less like an actual movie than an hour and a half assemblage of overwhelmingly terrible footage clumsily created over a period of years by a large group of people with no idea what they’re doing. The novelty of huge stars in hugely disgusting scenarios wears out its welcome the first time we see Jackman’s neck testicles. The film’s overwhelmingly awful vignettes are linked less by a framing structure than by an overwhelming emphasis on humiliation. The characters here exist to embarrass themselves and each other, and that embarrassment bleeds onto the cast and the audience. Accordingly, some international versions of Movie 43 featured an entirely dissimilar linking story, this time involving three teenagers looking for the most banned movie in existence, the titular Movie 43. Having suffered through two viewings of Movie 43, I’m fascinated that there is footage that was somehow deemed “not good enough” to be included in the film, most notably a pair of short films written and directed by Bob Odenkirk, which did not make the cut. But maybe I should just be grateful that Odenkirk was able to avoid being publicly associated with a project that lives up to its reputation as one of the worst widely released films in recent memory.
When I tweeted that I would be writing about Movie 43, someone pointed out that from a financial standpoint at least, Movie 43 isn’t really a flop, since it grossed over $30 million worldwide on a minuscule $6 million budget. But money only tells part of the story. Thanks to its deservedly toxic reputation, even if Movie 43 had grossed a hundred million dollars, it would still feel like a flop.
The wild thing about Movie 43 is that on some level Peter Farrelly achieved exactly what he set out to do. His modestly budgeted monstrosity turned a profit, and he most assuredly succeeded in putting out the most star-studded gross-out comedy of all time. Yet this is one instance of a man, and a “movie,” succeeding in those goals, yet failing spectacularly in every other conceivable way.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco