The cream always rises. Be it in a subpar superhero flick or thriller that was less than thrilling, here are more than a dozen actors who still shined in spite of the material.
Joel Schumacher’s campy take on Batman had already derailed the characters in Batman Forever, with its gleefully overacting villains and garish neon colors. But Batman & Robin took the series to its nadir, amplifying Schumacher’s grating direction with a pun-heavy script (by future Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman) and the epic miscasting of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, and Alicia Silverstone. But casting George Clooney to take over the cowl from Val Kilmer made one unexpected improvement. Clooney injected much-needed levity into the role, some of the same high-rolling panache that worked in Ocean’s Eleven and Out Of Sight. That’s probably because playing an exorbitantly wealthy playboy with charisma to spare and a chiseled jaw came naturally to him. The problem is that nobody goes to see a Batman film to see a great Bruce Wayne, and they certainly don’t go to see Batman in an oversized codpiece flashing credit cards at a charity auction.
An innocuous Robert Pattinson vehicle co-starring a tepid Reese Witherspoon, Water For Elephants puts Christoph Waltz at the mercy of an unremarkable director (a pre-Hunger Games Francis Lawrence), an uncharismatic pair of co-stars, and a melodramatic script. But as August, a sadistic circus owner and Witherspoon’s abusive husband, Waltz almost saves the movie with the magnetism and vigor that Pattinson lacks. Whether he’s committing acts of animal cruelty, threatening to beat Pattinson, or trying to strangle yet another blonde—which he has done in at least four roles—Waltz commits ferociously. The performance stands out even more given the anemic onscreen presence of Waltz’s co-stars, whose greatest success is making the character who coldly stabs innocent elephants into the best part of the movie.
In the process of translating Run Ronnie Run from page to screen, the stream-of-consciousness anarchy and singular weirdness of the sketch-comedy series that birthed the movie, Mr. Show, was diluted into something resembling a bluer Joe Dirt. There are moments in the film that resemble the old, absurdist Mr. Show magic, however, none more satisfying than the brief sequence featuring Mandy Patinkin as the star of a Broadway musical devoted to Run Ronnie Run’s redneck-with-a-heart-of-gold protagonist, Ronnie Dobbs (David Cross). Like many of Mr. Show’s finest sketches, the scene is deeply invested in sending up showbiz phoniness, but Patinkin’s performance pushes the proceedings beyond hysterical non sequitur. As the rest of Run Ronnie Run collapses around him, Patinkin digs in his heels and puts his Tony-winning pipes to the service of earnestly crooning Ronnie’s catchphrase (“Y’all are brutalizin’ me!”), then counters Bob Odenkirk’s signature histrionics with deadpanned thespian pretension. When the actor returns to his mark, totally nude save for a few choice props, there’s a hint of what Run Ronnie Run could’ve been, had Cross and Odenkirk been able to protect their film from being brutalized by an uncaring movie industry.
Featuring an especially robotic performance from Keanu Reeves and maybe the hammiest work of Al Pacino’s career—which is really saying something—Taylor Hackford’s ludicrous, good-versus-evil morality tale, The Devil’s Advocate, is rarely cited as a showcase for fine acting. (It’s rarely cited positively at all.) But the film boasts one truly remarkable turn, by a young actress making the most of a thankless role. Charlize Theron, who at that point had only appeared in a couple of other movies, co-stars as the new wife of Reeves’ hotshot Southern lawyer, who’s been poached by Pacino’s wickedly suave (or suavely wicked?) NYC attorney. Left to her own devices in big, scary Manhattan, a neglected Theron begins to succumb to demonic visions. As her character spirals into madness and desperation, the actress conjures a tempest of raw emotion completely out of sync with the otherwise tongue-in-cheek nature of the proceedings. Whenever she’s onscreen, the movie operates like a lost Roman Polanski film, as though Hackford had inserted a solid Rosemary’s Baby remake into the margins of his supernatural Scent Of A Woman parody. It was the first proof that Theron was more than a pretty face—though she’d have to obscure those good looks, via her Oscar-winning performance in 2003’s Monster, before Hollywood would really notice.
Alan Parker’s epic capital-punishment drama is overlong, overwrought, and self-important in all the worst ways. Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet muddle through accents neither can master, and the film’s twist ending is a little too pleased with itself for such a supposedly serious piece of cinema. But Laura Linney, who plays the murder victim that landed David Gale (Spacey) in jail, is tremendous. As her story plays out via flashbacks, she eschews the scenery chewing that characterizes the other actors, and her motivations are the only ones that make sense. It’s still a ridiculous, nearly unwatchable film that can’t decide whether it’s a gripping potboiler or a serious treatise on the death penalty, but without Linney, it would be even more preposterous.
The tension at the heart of the Twilight films should make for fascinating cinema: It’s part low-key, naturalistic relationship drama (with surprisingly good taste in music), and part Epic Supernatural Metaphorical Teen Romance For The Ages. Unfortunately, the films consistently flip the two, depicting universal true love as a pair of insipid teens stammering out their lines on one hand, and on the other, acting like irrelevant global vampire politics are a necessary to the story. The only actor who emerges relatively unharmed from this toxic cocktail of aesthetic dissonance is Billy Burke, playing Bella’s father, Charlie Swan. Behind a mustache conveying traditional masculinity, Burke conveys a universal feeling of a father unprepared to deal with his teenage daughter’s whims, secrets, and crushes, yet supportive and loving as best as he can be. He’s good enough that even the Rifftrax guys show him some respect during their marvelous Twilight takedown.
Jersey Girl gained notoriety during pre-production due to Kevin Smith’s casting of real life couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, but when that relationship and their film Gigli flamed out, the film became more about off-screen tumult than on-screen chemistry. Smith cut parts of the film’s first act to avoid the toxic Affleck–Lopez association (and because they lacked chemistry), but distancing itself from the affairs of the film’s stars did little to benefit Jersey Girl as a whole. Suffering from trite construction and overt sentimentality, the film and its cast get stuck in rom-com archetypes. Child actor Raquel Castro holds her own in her film debut, but it’s George Carlin’s performance as Castro’s grandfather, Bart Trinké, that shines brightest. Where Affleck over-reaches, treating each scene as the film’s heartwarming apex, Carlin’s subtlety and nuance keeps the film from devolving into a soap opera. When Affleck and Castro engage in an almost-believable shouting match, Carlin anchors the moment, helping the scene, and film, to occasionally land on its feet.
Reuniting John Travolta and Uma Thurman didn’t recreate their Pulp Fiction chemistry in the sequel to Get Shorty nobody was asking for, but Be Cool did show off one star on the rise. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was just leaving his professional wrestling career behind—for the first time—with roles in The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King, and the remake of Walking Tall. But as a gay Samoan bodyguard looking to break into show business, he subverted tough-guy expectations, and his comedic chops showed off his range. He may be trapped in the Fast & Furious loop now—and The Tooth Fairy is his The Pacifier—but his Bring It On monologue still shows that the wrestler had too much charisma for the ring to contain.
Even without the release date in such proximity to the death of Trayvon Martin, The Watch would have probably bombed due to its sheer mediocrity. Although co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who also did Superbad) and starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill, the movie barely gets any laughs from its star players, Vaughn in particular. Combine that with a ho-hum alien-invasion plot, and the movie devolves into a snooze-fest by the 10-minute mark. The movie’s only saving grace is a show-stealing performance from Richard Ayoade (best known as Maurice Moss from The IT Crowd), who plays—spoiler alert!—an alien who has more interest in getting his balls sucked than world domination. Thanks to his one-liners and facial expressions, Ayoade turns a secondary character into the funniest, and most compelling, part of The Watch.
A laughless, snooze-inducing comedy about a real detective and a wannabe detective recruited to star in a Cops-like reality show, Showtime is one of the worst movies in the careers of both its stars, Robert De Niro (beginning his Analyze This/Meet The Parents comedy period) and Eddie Murphy (well into his ongoing “crappy movie” period). The movie only comes alive when the producers of the reality show bring in William Shatner (playing himself) to teach Murphy and De Niro how to be a “TV Cop.” Shatner plays up his hammy image, giving expert advice about all the hood rolls he did in the ’80s as T.J. Hooker. When Shatner, the ultimate over-actor, shares the screen with De Niro, the consummate under-actor, it’s the only time the latter shows interest in his role.
The only aspect of Tim Burton’s decidedly loose remake of Planet Of The Apes to receive universal praise was Rick Baker’s prosthetic makeup design, a glorious example of practical effects on the cusp of the motion-capture and CGI era. Of all the actors buried under primate makeup—Paul Giamatti, Helena Bonham Carter, even Charlton Heston—Tim Roth made the biggest impression as the unhinged General Thade. Roth had turned down the role of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, which may retroactively explain the seething anger in his performance. For the role, Roth researched chimpanzee emotional swings, discovering how quickly they shift from docile to extremely violent, then back to harmless, which informed his performance as the power-hungry general.
Like Shatner in Showtime, Al Pacino makes fun of his hammier instincts while playing himself in this universally hated Adam Sandler movie. In a post-Scent Of A Woman world where Pacino has free rein to chew all the scenery he wants, he underplays here, as Jack (Sandler) courts Pacino to do a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial. For some reason, Pacino is enchanted with Jill (Sandler again), and will only make the commercial if Jack arranges a date with her. The result is the cringe-inducing “Dunkaccino” ad, where a chagrined Pacino dances around a DD while rapping about how “Dunkaccino” and “Al Pacino” sound alike. The kicker is Pacino looking at the finished ad in horror and telling Jack that “this must never be seen… by anyone”—just like Jack And Jill.
For a brief moment in the mid-’90s, Tom Arnold rose to leading-man status, after successful supporting roles in True Lies and Nine Months. Back-to-back disasters The Stupids and McHale’s Navy took care of that. Bruce Campbell’s autobiography If Chins Could Kill recounts the hellish experience of propping up Arnold’s film (“McHale’s Navy forced the sailors of Tom Arnold’s crew to become method actors—each day, we had to concoct dialogue for ourselves,”), but Tim Curry managed to escape the film relatively unscathed. As Major Vladikov—a beefed-up inversion to his supporting role in The Hunt For Red October—Curry plays the “second-best terrorist in the world,” plagued by anger-management issues and an inferiority complex. His conversations with a therapist—whose family he holds hostage to avoid desertion—prove the funniest in a film designed to wring every last drop out of the “film adaptation of a beloved sitcom” trend.