Esai Morales, Samantha Mathis, Jason Beghe

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.

Objectivists are forever going on and on about the eternal timeliness of Ayn Rand’s writing. To them, Atlas Shrugged is not an insane, paranoid right-wing fantasy of a deranged future that could never happen, but rather a subtle amplification of the world we currently inhabit. They feel that Atlas Shrugged doesn’t take place in the distant future: It takes place tomorrow, albeit a tomorrow that cannot function without a robust and all-important train system.

For people morbidly fascinated by Objectivism and Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged is perpetually timely for a much different reason. For me, it’s because there will always be some right-wing asshole sounding out a Randian plea to the populace. This plea claims that the innovators, businessmen, and renegade capitalists Rand revered and romanticized are being dragged down by what Rand and her heroes called looters and what Donald Trump calls “total losers”—government bureaucrats, establishment politicians, welfare recipients, leftist protesters, illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, Mexicans, and any other group that can be easily and popularly scapegoated.

Right now Donald Trump is the blowhard hollering that Randian plea the loudest. Trump hasn’t gushed about Rand and her philosophy the way former vice president candidate Paul Ryan did earlier in his political career. Still, I have little doubt that Trump sees himself as a Randian hero, a maverick capitalist unencumbered by the rules and limitations of lesser souls, which by his estimation clearly includes everyone.

Atlas Shrugged: Part II, the disastrously received 2012 follow-up to the disastrous first entry in the Atlas Shrugged series, desperately tries for an element of timeliness. It attempts to achieve this via a cameo appearance from Sean Hannity and a hilariously rinky-dink recreation of the 99-percent movement, represented by what appear to be five extras in flannel shirts recruited from a local improv troupe who are seen in multiple scenes carrying the same sad signs about sharing the wealth.

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The film begins with maverick protagonist Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling in the first film, Samantha Mathis in this one) flying a hilariously fake airplane through a wildly unconvincing CGI backdrop while repeatedly fretting out loud to no one in particular, “Who is John Galt?”

John Galt, of course, is the mysterious icon who has sparked a revolution of the mind in the dystopian future world of Atlas Shrugged by encouraging the truly exceptional people of the world—artists, inventors, capitalists, businessmen, scientists—to hold a strike. They deliberately withhold their society-supporting genius and hard work from a parasitic world that attempts to enslave them through the state-sanctioned robbery of taxes, innovation-strangling regulations, and the soul-scarring encouragement to think at least a little about the welfare of their fellow man.

As Atlas Shrugged opens, the world is in a state of crisis, as the men and women who, in Rand’s deathless phrase, constitute the “motor of the world” begin disappearing. Meanwhile, a terrified government edges progressively closer to socialism via new laws that purposefully end innovation and competition. They mandate that corporations give over the copyrights to inventions to the government in the form of “gift certificates,” enforcing draconian new regulations on business.

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When the head of state (played by Ray Wise) announces these measures, extras look on with the kind of horror people would muster if the government declared a “rape all babies and puppies” initiative. And in the paranoid world of Atlas Shrugged, that is just the kind of thing the government would do, the bastards.

Atlas Shrugged has a convoluted soap-opera plot involving corporate competition, government malfeasance, mysterious figures, and a world simultaneously on the brink of revolution, evolution, and dissolution. But on some level the plot doesn’t matter at all, since everything and everyone here is a slave to Rand’s philosophy. The movie’s players exist solely to articulate Rand’s arguments, then re-capitulate them again and again, in case anyone in the audience wasn’t paying attention.

There is a stunning, almost surreal gulf between the incendiary, cutting-edge widescreen epic the people behind the Atlas Shrugged trilogy think they’re making, and the insane, glorified TV movie they actually crapped out. The Atlas Shrugged movies boast Jaws-level ambition and Sharknado-level execution.

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Like its predecessor, Atlas Shrugged: Part II is a big believer that there’s no point allowing ideological arguments to emerge organically when you can simply have characters hop on top of their invisible soapbox and act as human bullhorns for Rand’s philosophy. Early in the film, rascally hero Francisco (Esai Morales) interrupts a speech about the glory of serving the common good by arguing:

Money is a tool that allows us to trade with one another. Your goods for mine. Your efforts for mine. The keystone of civilization. Having money is not the measure of a man. What matters is how he got it. If he produced it by creating value then his money is a token of honor. But if he’s taken it from those who produce then there is no honor. Then you’re simply a looter.

If Francisco sounds unmistakably like a man who is simply reading dense passages from a book about philosophy, that’s because that’s true.

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It would be jarring enough to have two different actresses playing the same role in consecutive entries in a film series that takes three interminable films to cover just one sadistically endless book. But it’s even more jarring for twentysomething Taylor Schilling to be replaced by fortysomething Samantha Mathis, who is 14 years older than the woman she’s so unsteadily replacing. Schilling, fortunately, did ever so slightly better with her next lead role, in Orange Is The New Black.

I hate to write about actors’ looks, but Dagny Taggart is supposed to not just be attractive but an impossibly glamorous and gorgeous super-woman. She’s a movie star of capitalism who angrily demands to be played by a genuine movie star, not just whoever Atlas Shrugged’s cash-strapped and under-capable filmmakers could get. Faye Dunaway would have made a terrific Dagny, because she seemed too beautiful and beatific to exist anywhere but on the silver screen and in feverish fantasies. Jennifer Lawrence and Angelina Jolie similarly have the looks and charisma to play the character. When an iconic character is supposed to be a preposterous dream of the ultimate woman, it does not help to have her portrayed by a mousy, middle-aged journeyman actress who gives off the vibe of perpetually being exhausted from a long day of auditioning unsuccessfully for mother roles in Lifetimes movies.

No actor is well served by Atlas Shrugged, but Mathis might have the worst of it. She’s a place-keeper in the most literal sense: she’s not the first Dagny in the series, or even the last, just the woman in the middle. And the middle section in the first Human Centipede movie has it easier than Mathis does here. Watching the Atlas Shrugged series, it’s easy to get the impression that the filmmakers couldn’t choose between their ninth, 14th, and 26th choices for the role of Dagny, so they decided to spread out the workload and give the role to all three, continuity and coherence be damned. In fact, all of the roles between the first and second Atlas Shruggeds were re-cast, contributing to the haphazardness.

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The TV-movie feel of Atlas Shrugged: Part II is only heightened by the Hollywood Squares randomness of the supporting cast. When Biff from Back To The Future and the dad from Family Ties share a scene, the frame nearly explodes from their combined star power. Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks shows up, along with the guy from Penn & Teller who doesn’t talk. How did Atlas Shrugged: Part II snag such a roster of luminaries? I suspect it’s because they were offered financial compensation in exchange for their acting services, and no one in the cast was in a position to turn down such a proposition, no matter how modest that compensation might be.

Jason Beghe plays the male lead of rugged, maverick industrialist billionaire Hank Rearden, who some might know as the lead in George Romero’s Monkey Shines. Beghe is probably better known for being one of the first prominent actors (and we are using the phrase “prominent” very generously here) to turn against Scientology. So it’s ironic that Beghe publicly and dramatically renounced his role in a creepy, greedy cult that appeals shamelessly to the narcissism and sense of smug superiority of artists and young people so that he could take on an iconic role revered by a creepy, greedy cult that appeals shamelessly to the narcissism and sense of smug superiority of artists and young people.

Beghe’s rasp makes it sound like he was weaned on whiskey from birth and given unfiltered cigarettes instead of a pacifier as a baby. He’s supposed to be a steel-willed exemplar of manly Objectivist values and rugged self-reliance, but he comes off more like a belligerent asshole. Still, if Hank cuts an unmistakably unlikable, implausible figure, the film is nevertheless enraptured with him. Rearden gives a speech late in the film to a group of understandably impressed magistrates about the innate evil of egalitarianism and innate good of ruthless self-interest. Observers in the courtroom are so moved by his raspy didacticism they give him the standing ovation the film clearly feels it deserves every time it makes a heavy-handed point against its cartoonish villains, which is roughly about once a minute.

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In the upside-down world of Atlas Shrugged, it’s easy to spot the villains. They’re always going around giving money to poor people and saying things like, “Our ideals are higher than profit,” which in the world of Atlas Shrugged is tantamount to saying, “I am pure evil and will destroy the world if given an opportunity.” The good guys and gals are forever delivering stiff arguments about the innate kindness and logic of the unfettered free market. They score points off an endless succession of pathetic straw men who suffer a Harlem Globetrotters/Washington Generals-level blowout in an “intellectual” battle just slightly slanted to the Objectivists’ side.

John Galt’s appeal as a character in these films is that he is established as an enigmatic, tantalizing idea before he is realized as a man. The maddening limitation of Atlas Shrugged is that all of its characters are thinly realized ideas rather than plausible human beings. And in Atlas Shrugged, as in The Fountainhead, there are really only two ideas at play, which are recycled to the point of madness.

First and foremost, there is the idea of the renegade capitalist, unencumbered by unnecessary concern for his fellow man and motivated purely by ruthless, relentless self-interest, as the engine that drives the world. He is the hero upon which society is hopelessly, if unconsciously and resentfully dependent.

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This idea is dependent on the films’/books’ second idea, a complementary conception of collectivists and community-minded souls as sniveling, cowardly villains sucking parasitically and voraciously away at the innovations and brilliance of the aforementioned renegade capitalists.

The question “Who is John Galt?” powers the book and the film series. Atlas Shrugged: Part II ends with an answer to that question, as Dagny crashes her airplane into a magical realm of ruthless self-interest known as Galt’s Gulch. She is led out of the wreckage by a man who identifies himself as John Galt, setting up the film’s third entry, 2014’s Atlas Shrugged, Part III: Who Is John Galt?

For me, John Galt is a mythical vessel for a poisonously unpalatable philosophy that has already wasted a whole lot of my time and energy. And since I will next be writing about the thrilling third entry in Atlas Shrugged, it looks like he’s going to waste more of my time before I’m done. But I have nobly decided to ignore my own self-interest and to soldier on in this strange endeavor solely for the sake of the common good.

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Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure

Up Next: Atlas Shrugged: Part III: Who Is John Galt?