In the 14 years since its release, Tommy Wiseau’s film The Room has become a cult classic for how amazingly bad it is. The film has a 3.5 rating on IMDb and a 32 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And those numbers are inflated because of how many people “like” the film ironically.
It’s become tradition to watch the film in a theater, and shout and throw spoons at the screen at its worst moments. The rituals associated with this theater-going experience are so complex that they warrant their own viewer’s guide. The Room is also so legendarily bad that James Franco recently directed and starred in a film about its creation, The Disaster Artist, which premiered at SXSW this week to rave reviews.
The Room, however, is just the foremost example of our culture’s delight in terrible movies. The trend started with Mystery Science 3000, in which a bunch of puppets would crack wise about a terrible B-movie, and lives on today with the How Did This Get Made? podcast, where comedians Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas deconstruct shitty films in hilarious detail.
But I’m uninterested in the moral superiority of mocking bad films and/or telling you which ones are the greatest. Art is subjective, and in that vein, I set out to find the films that are the most divisive. That is, the films that have a roughly equal number of ardent fans and haters.
I approximated this by finding films that have a 50 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, meaning the reviews for the film were perfectly split and therefore average in the most quantifiable way possible. There are dozens of films with this proud distinction, many of them the kind of B-movie horror shlock you would anticipate, but others that stand out for different reasons. If nothing else, the exercise served as a nostalgic trip down the aisles of Blockbuster.
I watched this film drunk and high on my couch after coming home (alone) from a Halloween party in college while my roommate got frisky with his girlfriend on the couch opposite mine. I remember it being beautifully shot and largely incomprehensible, that Willem Dafoe ejaculates blood at one point and that the film’s climax is Charlotte Gainsbourg performing a female circumcision on herself with a pair of old scissors. I didn’t sleep soundly afterward, and am forever terrified of director Lars Von Trier.
Good review: Tom Long sums up the film’s appeal nicely in The Detroit News: “Self-loathing, mean, ugly and perfectly made, Antichrist is probably the best film ever that you’d recommend to absolutely no one.”
Bad review: Christopher Kelly of the Dallas Morning News hates it for the exact same reasons: “Antichrist is a unique form of cruel and unusual punishment: an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.”
The movie critics who don’t enjoy this film deserve to be drawn and quartered. Kingpin is the lovable family tale of a bowling hustler (Woody Harrelson) who loses his hand after a con goes south, and then takes on an Amish man (Randy Quaid) as his protege. Bill Murray plays the heel, in one of the darker, more memorable performances of his career.
That Kingpin has such mediocre ratings proves that some critics are incapable of dropping their pretense and enjoying a joke about a man drinking bull jizz. It also proves those critics are woefully out of touch with the moviegoing public. The audience ratings for Kingpin (69 percent (nice)) and the Farrelly brothers’ other comedy classic Dumb and Dumber (84 percent) are much higher than the critics’ score.
Good review: Roger Ebert loved Kingpin, giving it 3.5 out of 4 stars, and writing that he belly laughed “again and again.”
Bad review: Entertainment Weekly gives it a “D” grade, calling it “lowest-common-denominator humor.”
Maleficent is the eponymous origin story of the Sleeping Beauty villain (kind of like how Wicked predates the The Wizard of Oz). It’s your standard fairy tale about an evil old sorceress (Angelina Jolie) who holds a grudge against a younger, fairer, more nubile maiden (Elle Fanning).
I’ll admit I’ve never seen this film. But it grossed a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office, according to IMDb, and inspired lots of sexy Halloween costumes, according to me. Along those lines, just looking at Jolie in those black leather horns is enough to give anyone a sexual thrill. I bet high-powered businessmen pay top dollar to get pegged by a Maleficent dominatrix.
Good review: “Angelina Jolie’s interpretation of the title character, which transforms the animated icon into a complex, fully realized woman, provides emotional depth and breadth,” writes James Berardinelli at ReelViews.
Bad review: “Even at 97 minutes, Maleficent is still one long, laborious slog,” Peter Travers writes in Rolling Stone.
‘Fast Food Nation’ (2006)
This film is based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling book about America’s addiction to shitty food, and the vast cultural, economic, environmental and health implications of that overconsumption. It’s a sprawling, endlessly engaging read, and seems impossible to distill into a coherent cinematic narrative.
That much proved to be true. The Fast Food Nation movie is a series of Altman-esque vignettes about people occupying different parts of America’s food supply network: A fast-food executive suffering a moral crisis; a Mexican immigrant working in a slaughterhouse; young protesters who want to liberate the cows. (This was when Hollywood was obsessed with movies like Crash, Syriana and Babel that tell us, “It’s all interconnected, man!”)
Each character has a surprising amount of emotional depth considering how little screen time they get, which is a testament to director Richard Linklater. But the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts, and the film doesn’t have half the resonance of the book. If you hate reading but still want to learn how McDonald’s almost destroyed civilization, you’d be better served watching the documentary Food, Inc. (96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), which prominently includes Schlosser.
Good review: An overzealous Joe Williams calls it “the most important American film of ” in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Bad review: “The fiction that Schlosser and the director Richard Linklater have extracted from the book is a mess, with narrative lines that go astray or simply wind up in the air,” David Denby writes in the New Yorker.
‘My Girl’ (1991)
This film was created to teach children that life is filled with needless suffering. It’s the coming-of-age tale of an 11-year-old girl named Vada (Anna Chlumsky), and her innocent prepubescent friendship with neighborhood boy Thomas (Macaulay Culkin). Spoiler alert: Thomas unexpectedly dies at the end of the film after he’s stung by a swarm of bees and suffers an allergic reaction, at which point you, the viewer, will cry like a little bitch.
I hated this movie growing up. It made me feel emotions I couldn’t yet handle, and my older sister wanted to watch it constantly. In retrospect, I can’t believe my parents allowed her to inflict that kind of emotional torture on me. But the weightiness of the film convinced me it was a good movie, because I was precocious and equated seriousness with artistic quality. So I was surprised to see the jury so split.
Good review: Ebert was an apologist for the film, too, acknowledging its tropes but saying it’s touching, and that it “has its heart in the right place.”
Bad review: Those curmudgeonly bastards at Entertainment Weekly give it a C+, calling the film manipulative and saying it doesn’t operate on a deep enough emotional level.
‘Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves’ (1991)
Like many boys my age, I adored this film growing up, so it’s only a matter of time before Tim Grierson records a podcast about how it’s actually fucking terrible.
Most of my love was because it features a character named Little John, and I’m a sucker for any pop culture that appeals to my narcissism. I acknowledge there are problems with this particular Robin Hood rendition, mainly Kevin Costner not even trying to affect a British accent. The script was so bad that Alan Rickman rewrote it in a Pizza Hut with some friends. It’s also rumored that Costner had some of Rickman’s scenes cut because he felt upstaged.
Rickman’s sardonic, creepy performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham is so great, in fact, that it alone makes the film worth watching. His acting negates Costner’s, thus achieving the perfect 50–50 balance we’re looking for.
Good review: Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News gives the most ho-hum endorsement a critic can, writing: “Costner is not a Robin Hood for the ages, but in this expensively mounted production, he’ll do as a Robin Hood for the summer.”
Bad review: Empire magazine’s Philip Thomas offers this rebuttal: “With so much money and talent at work here, though, this latest incarnation of the legend is considerably smaller than the sum of its parts.”