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The Great Casts Wasted on Mediocre Movies

The latest take on the Addams Family isn’t the first thoroughly crappy-looking film to fritter away the talents of its top-notch stars, and it sadly won’t be the last

When news first hit that Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron had been cast to play Gomez and Morticia Addams, it seemed like a dream come true. If anyone could bring the dizzying blend of sex appeal and strangeness that Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston did to the delightful Addams movies of the 1990s, it would be these two wildly charismatic dreamboats. 

Then, the cast for this curious reboot grew to include acclaimed ingénues Chloë Grace Moretz and Elsie Fisher, rising ingéndude Finn Wolfhard and a jaw-dropping cavalcade of celebrated comedy performers like Nick Kroll, Jenifer Lewis, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Allison Janney and Bette Midler. 

And yet, The Addams Family looks absolutely awful.

The animated approach to the Addamses robs audiences of the opportunity to enjoy Isaac in a chic pin-stripe suit with a pencil-thin mustache that promises mischief, Theron in a Morticia-tight dress paired with a smirk that tempts and terrifies, and all the glorious mugging of witchy queens of camp, Midler and O’Hara. Based on the jaunty yet dedicatedly rotten trailer, this cartoonishly terrible choice is truly the greatest horror the family-comedy will dare to offer. 

All of which got us thinking about films that, based on the cast alone, should have been absolutely outstanding. Even with a small army of heralded performers who could fill the Addams’ mansion from attic to dungeon with their collected trophies and rave reviews, some ensemble films only manage to be astounding in how altogether ooky they turn out. So, to toast the release of The Addams Family, we’re looking back at the worst movies with the best ensemble casts.

The Swarm (1978)

In the 1970s, star-studded disaster adventures were all the rage. The success of movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno paved the way for plenty of imitators, and since Irwin Allen was a producer on both of the above, he felt he could handle the helm of the bee-centered thriller The Swarm. To his credit, Allen pulled together a cast of storied stars that included Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Katharine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Ben Johnson, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Olivia de Havilland and Fred MacMurray in his final role. But The Swarm proved a disaster movie in more than one sense. 

Though future films like Candyman and The Wicker Man remake would find ways to make teeny bees scary on the big screen, The Swarm failed to fly. The titular swarm looked again and again like benign bits of dirt being shot out of tree trunks or chucked at helicopter windows. Neither dialogue about the deadly venom of the African killer bee nor hallucinated giant bees could make the little buggers all that menacing, and the actual attack scenes offered nothing truly gruesome, though Jerry Goldsmith’s raucous score tries to convince its audience otherwise. 

Still, the cast put up a good fight: Ross and de Havilland shriek to sell the stings of this bee-movie’s violence; Fonda gives his twinkling eyes to every close-up; and Caine sure yells a lot to attempt to infuse some gravitas into this flat film full of tiresome exposition scenes. Still, nothing can save them from the suck of The Swarm

Nothing But Trouble (1991) 

This notorious horror-comedy marked the directorial debut of Dan Aykroyd, and has been described by the Ghostbusters star himself, in a recent interview with Dope Magazine, as “The film that ended my directing career.” Frankly, it’s easy to see why. 

Teaming with his young brother Peter Aykroyd, the pair wrote the demented story about a pair of yuppies trapped in a trashy ghost town run by a tyrannical judge, who has a penchant for grey sausages and gruesome sentences. To headline, Aykroyd snagged fellow famous funnymen Chevy Chase and John Candy as well as Demi Moore, who was hot off the smash hit Ghost. But even with all this talent combined, Nothing But Trouble was nothing but a bomb, tanking at the box office and with critics.  

Chase’s smugness sours opposite Moore’s manic but messy swings at comedy. Meanwhile, Candy played a pair of twins, one a by-the-book cop who has never met a punchline, the other a mute old maid that squeezes the plump comedian into Shirley Temple drag. Aykroyd centered himself as the chief antagonist, a 106-year-old judge so decrepit that he looks like a “before” shot of the Crypt Keeper

Aykroyd also caked himself in heavy, ghoulish prosthetic make-up to play Bobo, one of a pair of overgrown mutant babies who serve as gloppy guard dogs over a junkyard strewn with booby-traps, including a criminal-exterminating carnival ride called “Mr. Bone Stripper.” And that’s not all! There are also gross-out gags, a convoluted plotline of revenge and romance and an inexplicable musical cameo from the alt-hip hop group Digital Underground. It’s funny, but not in the “ha ha” way, more in the “uh…huh” way.

Congo (1995)

On paper, this summer adventure film seemed destined for greatness: Hot off the success of 1993’s Jurassic Park, it too was based on a Michael Crichton novel;  its script was penned by Academy Award-winning Moonstruck screenwriter John Patrick Shanley; it starred Broadway ingénue Laura Linney, Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson and revered character actor Tim Curry. Shame about those diamond-loving killer apes, though. 

Loosely based on Crichton’s aforementioned novel, Congo follows an expedition into a treacherous jungle seeded with frightening folklore to recover an MIA research team, find a legendary gem and also return an ASL-fluent gorilla back to the wilds from whence she came. In many ways, it feels like a hasty copycat of Jurassic Park — there’s lip-service to the evils of capitalism and colonialism amid creature-feature sequences of action and carnage. But there’s nothing so extraordinary as the life-like dinosaurs of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, though Amy the shade-slinging ape does try. Meanwhile, the politics of the film feel like a half-hearted attempt to make this B-movie seem sophisticated, which is hard to pull off when your climax involves a laser-gun and clumsily costumed stuntmen barreling around in gorilla suits on a laughably cheap-looking volcano set. 

As the movie awkwardly lumbers from heated business negations to supernatural animal savagery and back again, Congo can be a bit of a slog. Nonetheless, it’s developed a cult following in part for just how bananas it is that it exists at all. If you’re looking for a movie “so bad it’s good,” you could definitely do worse. For bonus fun, keep an eye out for cameos from B-movie legend Bruce Campbell and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, as well as bit players who would go on to bigger stardom, like Academy Award-nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and George Clooney’s Academy Award-winning writing/producing partner, Grant Heslov (Argo). 

Righteous Kill (2008) 

When you think of Hollywood heavyweights, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino hit the top of the list. During the New Hollywood-era, they made their mark playing tantalizing tough guys in iconic films. De Niro teamed with emerging auteur Martin Scorsese for such scintillating cinema as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. Pacino tore up the big screen as a string of charismatic anti-heroes in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Yet the pair’s paths have barely crossed over scads of films and decades as leading men. 

In 1974’s The Godfather: Part II, they both appear, but not together. De Niro and Pacino don’t share a single scene in that acclaimed sequel — this wouldn’t happen, in fact, until Michael Mann’s critically heralded 1995 crime-thriller Heat, and even then, the pair spend the majority of the film apart. So for rarity alone, you might think their reteam in 2008’s Righteous Kill would be a must-see. After all, how could the collision of such towering screen presences possibly be anything short of awesome? 

Oh, so many reasons. The script by Russell Gewirtz leaned hard into a convoluted plot about a poetry-scribbling vigilante who kills the criminals the law fails to convict. It also engages in tedious tropes that reduce compelling character actress Carla Gugino to a curvy plot contrivance with an inexplicable thirst for a sagging and surly De Niro. Donnie Wahlberg, John Leguizamo and Brian Dennehy are left to bring life to stodgy copper stereotypes, while rapper 50 Cent (credited as Curtis Jackson) brings a snoozy stoicism to a sweater-sporting drug dealer. 

Meanwhile, De Niro and Pacino just seem bored. De Niro’s grumbling world-weariness plays as if he’s eye-rolling over the material between takes and even Pacino’s spunky bursts of laughter and crackling cadence ring hollow. Thankfully, the two have a chance to make amends with Scorsese’s upcoming — and already heralded — drama The Irishman.

Movie 43 (2013) 

Like the premise of one of the twisted vignettes within this critically reviled comedy anthology, Movie 43 seems like it was built on a series of escalating dares. Would Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet be willing to spoof the rom-com genre by pinning a pair of testicles under his chin for a gag-inducing dinner date sketch? Would (then) real-life lovers Anna Faris and Chris Pratt dare to do an extended bit all about poop fetish? Would Halle Berry be game to whip a boob out to make guacamole for Stephen Merchant? 

A dozen directors — including Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber), James Gunn (Slither, and later, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) — teamed with a small army of movie stars to create an achingly disjointed comedy that plays like a torturous marathon of rejected SNL sketches. Justin Long, Jason Sudeikis, Uma Thurman and Kristen Bell team up for “Superhero Speed Dating,” which features cheaply costumed supes spitting crude jokes about pubic hair, ejaculation and gay panic. Elsewhere, Sean William Scott and Johnny Knoxville face-off against a leprechaun Gerard Butler for a mischievous and ultra-violent bit called “Happy Birthday.” The whole lot is haphazardly strung together by a framing device of a maniac screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) pitching his insane movie ideas to a frustrated studio exec (Greg Kinnear). But even this running bit lacks thought, cutting randomly to sketches without intros and commercial parodies that boast more full nudity than jokes, because sure, why not? 

Movie 43 shows an absolute disdain for its audience, subjecting them to juvenile jokes, half-cooked concepts, lazy punch lines and sketches that run out of steam long before they have the decency to end. Watching it feels like a challenge, but at the end, all you win is the numbing realization that you wasted 134 minutes on a movie that exists chiefly to mock anyone who would turn out for it. So really, the joke is on us. 

Mother’s Day (2016) 

Blatantly ripping off a formula that made Love Actually a Christmas classic, American director Garry Marshall took the concept of a multi-thread, holiday-centered rom-com and transplanted it Stateside for a film series that has thankfully worn out its welcome. 

Marshall’s holiday franchise began with 2010’s Valentine’s Day, which grossed more than $110 million domestic and scored an inauspicious 18 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Its 2011 sequel (of sorts) New Year’s Eve made just half that and got a scorching seven percent on the Tomato-meter. And yet, Marshall regrouped once more for Mother’s Day, which despite pandering hard to moms and those who love them, only made 32 mil and pulled the lowest rating of them all at six percent. 

Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Britt Robertson, Margo Martindale, Aasif Mandvi, Timothy Olyphant and Jason Sudeikis struggle to bring life to a handful of underwritten plotlines about finding love, forgiving hurt and celebrating moms. Specifically, it’s celebrating the thin, pretty, white moms, whose hair is always flawless and yoga pants are ever-spotless. Moms of color are pushed to supporting roles like the requisite sassy black friend and the consolatory model minority who softens a lame racist joke with the line, “I don’t get that joke but it sounds racist — and funny!” 

Nonetheless, the cast commits, mugging whole-heartedly through underwhelming bits of runaway RVs and karaoke-sparked pratfalls. Still, watching this supposedly feel-good film feels like labor. 

Murder On The Orient Express (2017) 

Following in the tradition of great Agatha Christie adaptations, director Kenneth Branagh positively stuffed his spin on the classic crime novel with a jaw-dropping ensemble of astoundingly talented actors. Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr. and Branagh himself joined forces to spin a tale of murder and mystery aboard the titular train. But woefully, this journey was full of major missteps.

With a mid-level budget of $55 million, Branagh relied heavily on CGI over practical locations, which led to some snowy exterior shots that look as though the characters wandered into a laptop’s over-lit screensaver. To amp up the allure of this period piece to a modern audience, screenwriter Michael Green wedges in an early, yet underwhelming action sequence, which is all the more irritating when you realize how it steals from its incredible cast a chance to score any worthwhile screen time. (Especially galling is the treatment of Colman, who would go from That Guy character actor to Oscar-winning Best Actress just 15 months later with The Favourite.) Then, confounding cinematography choices repeatedly bar us from seeing the expressions on these famous faces, offering the backs of their heads or staying so wide their countenances can’t be counted on at all. 

The only performer really given room to shine here is — you guessed it! — Branagh in the lead role of the eccentrically mustachioed Hercule Poirot. He gets a wealth of screen time and close-ups with loving lighting to capture every expression and twitch of that ludicrous mustache. All of which makes his performance befuddling, as his every line and gesture is played to the rafters, offering a theatrically that collides crudely with the dark content and the other actors’ tones. But when you’re the director and the star, who will dare tell you to take it down a notch? 

And so, by my deduction, The Murder on the Orient Express was derailed by… hubris.

Life Itself (2018) 

In the wake of the success of his TV series This is Us, writer/director Dan Fogelman tried to bring his twisty take on family drama to the big screen with Life Itself. He wrangled a fantastic cast that touted Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Antonio Banderas and Samuel L. Jackson. And yet, it crashed hard at the box office, not even earning back its meager $10 million budget. Critics were no kinder, giving it a 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. 

But what could be so bad about a romantic drama that intertwines love stories of couples’ troubles and triumphs? Well, for starters, Fogelman studded his love stories with graphic violence that happens abruptly and gruesomely. We’re talking lovely people being mowed down by buses and gunshot wounds that leave brains splattered all over office walls. So each time you might start to settle down into a tale of sentiment and sweetness, along comes a random burst of tragedy to tear things apart. 

There’s also plenty of pretentious chatter about the meaning of life, and unreliable narrators, and how life is the ultimate unreliable narrator. This gets so tedious that you begin wishing for the next impending tragedy just so the story can move along already. 

Fogelman’s film features some of the most charismatic actors alive today, and asks them to fall in love. Somehow, though, he managed to make a movie in which their charms are overwhelmed by insipid philosophizing and grisly plot twists. In the end, life itself is far less irritating — and feels much shorter — than Life Itself