So how do you define a truly bad film? Most internet ‘bad movie lists’ are populated by low budget B-movies with comedy titles such as “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”, or my personal favourite, “Ghost and the invisible Bikini”. However, I’d like to turn my attention away from the harmless ‘so bad it’s good’ sub-genre to focus on what I believe are a few of the true stinkers of the past twenty years or so.
I’m a firm believer in judging a film based on (a) whether it accomplishes what it’s setting out to do and (b) whether it’s as good as it thinks it is. For that reason it’s a little unfair to mention films such as “Stop! Or my mum will shoot”, tagline: ‘She did the laundry, washed the windows and scrubbed the floors. Now, she’s gonna clean up the streets.’ At no point during during the making of the film did director Roger Spottiswoode look over at Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty in her shellsuit and get any ideas above his station. They all knew what they were signing up for.
It’s far harder to forgive a bad film when it takes itself too seriously. Perhaps the worst cuplrit in this category is M Night Shyamalan, whose most heinous crime to my mind is still Signs – some might well argue (justifiably) he’s churned out worse since. But never has it been more obvious that a director’s entire conceptual narrative process evolves from a single cheap twist scribbled on the back of a beermat during happy hour. And the most galling thing about insulting the viewer in this way is the nauseating sense of self-satisfaction.
That’s not to say he’s the only director to let early success go to his head. Richard Kelly followed up his outstanding debut Donnie Darko with the pretentious nightmare that is Southland Tales. Set in a post-nuclear alternative near future and featuring characters such as Boxer Santaros and Krysta Now, it’s just a total mess. You’ve got to have a damn good plot, script and supporting cast if Sarah Michelle Gellar is your main acting talent. Sadly Southland Tales has none of the above and the film disappears up its own post-apocalyptic arse long before Gellar gets to work.
Speaking of pretentious, I have to say that few words have me reaching for a clean pair of boxers quicker than ‘quirky arthouse indie comedy’. Into this category you can lump a growing number of films from the last decade, some of which are less irritating than others (Juno, Sideways, The Royal Tenenbaums) but most of which are lapped up by the liberal media and ‘popular culture’ as witty and heartwarming, despite the horribly over-elaborate scripts and sea of hideous characters with stupid names that we’re supposed to care about (Little Miss Sunshine, Life Aquatic). About Schmidt is heralded as both ‘hilarious’ and ‘touching’. There’s not a single vaguely amusing moment in the entire film (I mean, there really isn’t) and the ten second emotional pay-off at the end does nothing to excuse the previous two hours of intense boredom and desire to self-harm.
I Heart Huckabees really ups the ante though. Billed as a ‘Laugh out loud funny’ comedy, the film thinks of itself as a quirky (alarm bells) light-hearted exploration of some of life’s difficult questions. The problem is that the characters are just so smug and preachy (Lily Tomlin and Mark Wahlberg are particularly odious) that as a viewer you never feel like you’re being invited to join the discussion. It’s the sort of film that you’ll think is really clever if you spend most of your free time listening to Newton Faulkner and sipping tall skinny double mochaccinos in Caffe Nero’s. For the rest of us, the only searching questions you’ll find yourself asking are “How am I supposed to get those 2 hours back again?” and “If a tree falls in the woods and no-one’s around to hear it and it landed on Zach Braff, would it wipe the smirk off his face?”