Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best performance in an otherwise bad movie?
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
There’s a Cult of Val (Kilmer, obviously) that I proudly belong to. Mainly it revolves around movies like “Real Genius,” “Top Secret!” and “Heat,” all excellent movies that don’t fit the parameters of this question. But you really don’t know Val until you’ve made your peace with Oliver Stone’s beyond-awful “The Doors.” The apocryphal anecdotes around Kilmer’s deep dive into Jim Morrison are insane: insisting that no one look him in the eye on set, wearing the same leather pants for months, taping his own self-produced demos, memorizing the lyrics of dozens of songs. To watch him in the movie is to see an effort that goes beyond acting, into an incantatory state of being.
This is coupled with Stone’s most obnoxiously self-important filmmaking, uncorked at the woozy peak of his Hollywood power. “The Doors” is a terrible movie that tries to make sense of the ’60s; it’s like being lectured by a stoned history professor who only wants to get in your pants. Kilmer patiently listens to excruciating lines of dialogue (“The planet is screaming for change, Morrison—we gotta make the myths!” or “You’re a poet, not a rock star!”) and meets them with the shyest, most beautifully judged smile. His performance is an extraordinary gift of forgiveness.
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Hello Beautiful, /Film, Thrillist, etc
The performance that comes to mind is Kimberly Elise as Crystal/Brown in “For Colored Girls.” While the movie itself is relentlessly bleak and heavy-handed, Elise is remarkably restrained yet effective in portraying an absolutely devastating character.
Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Birth.Movies.Death.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
With apologies to everyone who likes it (one person’s Good Trash is another’s simply Trash), “Jupiter Ascending” features what might be the strangest, most alluring performance to hit screens on a global scale since Heath Ledger’s Joker. Upon release, Eddie Redmayne’s Balem Abrasax drew immediate comparisons to the side of the Nicolas Cage spectrum one tends to find on YouTube, which isn’t a bad thing in my estimation. It also leads me to believe that, like in many a case with Cage himself, Redmayne’s performance is severely misunderstood.
His rapidly swinging tonal pendulum comes less from a desire to shock and surprise with manic energy (of which there is certainly plenty), and more from a place deep self-loathing. His hoarse whispers and detached affectations certainly create an air of megalomania, though his eyes can’t help but divulge the rage and melancholy lurking beneath; emotions that find themselves bursting forth in tandem during lines like “I CREATE LIFE,” a desperate declaration of his now threatened position in the universal order, followed by the soft, tearful acceptance that “life is an act of consumption…” His only claim to his name, his status, anything at all, is his place as a demonic consumer of other people’s very essence. He knows this, and Redmayne embraces the Wachowskis’ gonzo nonsense with reckless abandon and a pompous posture that says “I don’t give a f*** about anything, least of all expectations.” It’s a damn good time at the movies.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
The phrasing of this question really helps; I can think of many performances I love in terribly directed movies, but most of those movies also have additional virtues, such as the writing or even the cinematography, that help to put the performances over. So I went to look for a movie that is bad in every significant way except for the performance in question, and it turns out to be a trio of performances in the dramatically insipid, turgidly directed musical “Down Argentine Way”—the musical comedy and gracefully athletic dance wizardry of the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, and the exuberant singing and expressively formalized gesture-repertory of Carmen Miranda in a batch of catchy songs that include “Mamãe Eu Quero,” which should be ultra-familiar to fans of “I Love Lucy.”
Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie), Vox
Nobody, including me, knows exactly how Zoe Saldana ended up in “Center Stage,” which is not a good movie though I love it to absolute pirouetting death. Saldana plays the smartass in a sea of tightass student ballerinas who doesn’t really care what anyone thinks, signified by chewing gum, swearing, and letting pieces of her hair hang in her face. It is not altogether surprising that (beside Peter Gallagher) she’s one of the few actors in that film who has gone on to have an actual bona fide movie career, but even though her character is a pretty standard stereotype for dance movies of the era, she’s still super fun to watch.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today
Let me start with a performance in a recent TV show (or, rather, a show designed for streaming at home): Tom Pelphrey, as Ward Meachum in Netflix’s abysmal “Iron Fist.” While he initially seems to play just another smarmy, one-dimensional rich guy, he quickly reveals a character with far greater nuances than first imagined, and is, by a long shot, the most compelling actor in the show (though Jessica Henwick, Rosario Dawson and Carrie-Anne Moss are very watchable, too). Among indie movies, I’ll go with Elizabeth De Razzo in last year’s “The Greasy Strangler.” While that film embraced its awful aesthetic with a purposeful vengeance, it was still deeply unpleasant, with De Razzo the only bright spot. For mainstream, commercial cinema, I would have to go with Ewan McGregor in the “Star Wars” prequels, #2 (“Attack of the Clones”), especially. As the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, he singlehandedly carries the entire franchise on his capable shoulders. In #1, he at least has Liam Neeson by his side, whereas in “Clones” he is alone with a hapless Hayden Christensen and a Natalie Portman hopelessly out of her depth. In defense of everyone else, it’s probably fair to say that George Lucas had, by this time, forgotten how to speak to actors. Finally, I’ll add a postscript for Hugh Grant in last year’s “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a film I disliked immensely (I thought Meryl Streep gave one of the worst performances of her career, Oscar nomination notwithstanding). With charming insouciance, he draws the viewer’s eye, always magnificent.
Christy Lemire (@christylemire), RogerEbert.com, What the Flick?!
Tommy Wiseau in “The Room,” of course. It’s the ultimate great performance in an otherwise terrible movie. He’s just so … committed. Is there any other possible response to this question?
Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC), Vulture/Film Comment
I’ll go with a classic (or by the parameters of this question, a non-classic): Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest.” To quote Pauline Kael, “You can’t help laughing at the movie, but you can’t laugh at her.” Frank Perry’s film is a series of performance pieces that barely connect, but what Dunaway does as Joan Crawford remains one of the most daring pieces of studio-movie acting in the last fifty years: She simultaneously scales WAY up and goes for bone-deep psychological realism — the realism of someone who attempts to exert control over her life by overacting every nanosecond of it. It’s a performance, though not a movie, that’s high on my list of all-time favorites–and the fact that it got labeled as camp did Dunaway a dreadful disservice. It’s not camp and it’s not drag (except that, like great drag, it’s intuitive and knowledgeable and empathetic). I love it.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics, Film School Rejects
This is a tough question if I’m going to be consistent and answer with documentaries, but not impossible. One that comes to mind is Pete Postlethwaite as “The Archivist” in “The Age of Stupid.” He actually doesn’t do much, and the film, an environmentalism issue doc with a future-set framing device, isn’t a bad movie. But it’s not a very good movie, and the Oscar-nominated actor’s presence stands out as demanding of much better. My real pick, though, has to be Joaquin Phoenix in “I’m Still Here.” The guy had us all fooled, or maybe some of us, with his lengthy performance art piece, documented by Casey Affleck. The doc chronicling the actor’s pretend career change to rapper and the world’s reaction is fascinating in spurts but in the end doesn’t really work. Plus it’s so frustrating to watch and wonder what other film performances he could have given us instead during that time.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
I can’t remember life before TIFF, so I have to go with Shia LaBeouf in “Borg / McEnroe.” That movie doesn’t really hang together, but LaBeouf is so confident, so commanding, and so full of life that you’d rather watch him rally by himself than play for a Grand Slam championship.