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The Worst Performances by Great Actors — IndieWire Critics Survey

From Ethan Hawke in "Valerian" to Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman," critics make sense of their favorite actors' biggest missteps.

“Batman Forever”

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 worst performance by a great actor you usually love?

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), The Wrap, Remezcla, MovieMaker Magazine

Collectively, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna have been enlisted to enhance films by Almodovar, Spielberg, Larraín, Korine, and, of course, Alfonso Cuarón; in addition to many more efforts by the world’s leading directors. Both have also tried their hand at directing, with Luna having a more notable run behind the camera, and more recently basked in the attention of worldwide mainstream success in the form of “Coco” and “Rogue One.”

Yet, buried underneath that steady stream of good marks and auteur-driven opportunities, most of which this critic has been a champion of, is “Casa de Mi Padre.” Matt Piedmont’s debut feature, a Spanish-language satire starring Will Ferrell, is more of a monstrously extended SNL skit than a movie. Watching it, one may conclude that its creators were more interested in proving they could pull out the feat of making a movie in a foreign language than actually eliciting laugher from viewers. Clichéd is too mild a term for the depiction of Mexican culture here, which brings to García Bernal and Luna’s part in this debacle.

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As Ozna, a feared criminal, and Raúl, Ferrell’s character’s brother, respectively, the actors try to walk this grotesque line of comedy with as much charm as possible, but though being native Spanish-speakers helps, the result is forcefully cartoonish and panders to Ferrell’s antics. This is not to say that the Mexican duo can’t successfully embody over-the-top personas, since they were jointly entertaining in Carlos Cuarón’s soccer saga “Rudo y Cursi,” as idiotic siblings endlessly trying to one-up each other.

In “Casa de Mi Padre,” however, their talents are misused to serve a screenplay that relied on unoriginally implemented tropes, ridiculous accents, and a failed lead performance that left little room for anyone else on screen. Admittedly, even if this can be counted as Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna’s worst appearance, they are still not the worst part about this obvious misfire. Dressed in stereotypically flamboyant fashion, both Mexican treasures do their best to enliven the mess they are in.

Working with one of America’s most recognizable comedic stars was likely the draw, even more so since the film was set in Mexico and in Spanish. It could have potentially resulted in a uniquely strange experiment, but, as we now know, that wasn’t the case.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

Emil Jannings, who (it’s worth recalling) won the first Academy Award for Best Actor, is indeed one of the best actors in the history of cinema and perhaps the grandest, as seen in Lubitsch’s “The Loves of Pharaoh,” Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” “Tartuffe,” and “Faust,” and Josef von Sternberg’s “The Last Command” (one of the two movies for which he won the not-yet-called-an-Oscar) and “The Blue Angel.” But he remained in Germany under the Nazi regime and was a supporter of it, resulting in his performances in propaganda films, such as “Uncle Kruger,” from 1941, an anti-British drama in which he plays a nineteenth-century Boer leader in South Africa. There, his overwhelming strength, rage, pain, vanity, and longing–which, in his great work, are all combined in one colossal, ironic, and complex character–are separated out into fixed, rigid, and uniform strands in the interest of emphasizing doctrine, exactly one tone one moment at a time, and banishing all indeterminacy, ambiguity, and boundary-bursting excess.

Casey Cipriani (@CaseyCip), Bustle, Freelance

There were a lot of reviews of “Vox Lux” this year that called Natalie Portman’s lead performance comically awful, but I found her pop persona amusing and charming. Portman really went for it taking Celeste’s Staten Island upbringing and melding it with all of the luxury that is being a pop princess. Portman’s almost wackadoo performance was the one thing I really enjoyed about “Vox Lux,” which I found otherwise infuriating. Some of her work over the past ten years has been absolutely astounding, including “Black Swan,” “Jackie,” and “Annihilation.” But Portman seems to have just as many cringeworthy performances as wonderful ones.

I can’t decide which is worse, however, the Star Wars prequels, or “Garden State,” though both can probably boil down to the bad writing. In the Star Wars prequels, Portman’s Queen Padme Amidala is powerful and smart, sure, but Portman plays her with such zero personality, it’s almost as if she was told that, in order to be strong she had to be a robot. “Garden State’s” Sam is almost the exact opposite, such emotional quirky overkill that I couldn’t possibly believe Zach Braff’s version of the manic pixie dream girl could actually exist. I’m hoping that Portman continues her streak and doesn’t regress back to those bad roles.

Sara Clements (@mildredsfierce), Reel Honey

All great actors are prone to having that one role that is so inferior to all their other work, and so bad that you wonder how they could have possibly been that bad. Oscar winners aren’t exempt from this. The first example of a great actor with a bad performance that comes to mind is Marion Cotillard in “The Dark Knight Rises”. Playing Miranda Tate, a board member of Wayne Enterprises, she isn’t given much to do with the role, which results in one of the most underwhelming villains. But her death scene – oh, that death scene – is so bad. The way she just slumps over like that…It’s something you need to see to get what I’m talking about. It’s one of those things that’s so bad it’s hilarious. “The Dark Knight Rises” came on TV recently and I immediately went, “Oh, God…” It’s not something that’s easily forgettable. I’ve seen “La Vie en Rose,” the film that solidified her star status and talent. It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on screen. Her Oscar is much deserved because her performance as Edith Piaf is so powerful and wholly convincing. Perhaps the way Miranda Tate was written was just too boring for her to fully exert herself into the role, resulting in the worst death scene of recent memory.

Jesse Hassenger (@rockmarooned), The A.V. ClubNylonThe Week

Tommy Lee Jones is one of those actors with a clearly defined type–he certainly has his wry no-bullshit thing, most closely associated with his Oscar-winning role in “The Fugitive”–who nonetheless shows a surprising amount of range both within and outside of that type. Whether he’s appearing in smart adult fare or unabashed pulp, he’s the kind of clockwork presence Hollywood depends on to bring his own personality and shadings to sometimes-stock parts (and to further deepen good ones). He can be deadpan-hilarious in “Men in Black,” haunted and decent in “No Country for Old Men,” a classical old-school movie star in “Space Cowboys,” or sputtering with insanity of “Natural Born Killers” and “Blown Away.” It’s that sputtering-insanity mode that Jones finds himself in “Batman Forever,” the third entry in the original series of Batman blockbusters, wherein Jones plays Batman’s enemy Harvey Dent, also known as the madman Two-Face.

Jones, known as a prickly guy, famously informed his co-star Jim Carrey (who played a particularly unhinged version of the Riddler) that he could not “sanction [Carrey’s] buffoonery” when they worked together. It’s a perfectly Jonesy anecdote, but also puzzling, given that his performance as Two-Face absolutely does sanction Carrey’s brand of buffoonery. Instead of providing steely contrast to Carrey’s wild gesticulations (which are, indeed, cartoony even for a Batman movie from 1995 taking its cues from the ’60s TV series), Jones tries to compete with him, maniacal cackle for maniacal cackle. Even more distressing: Jones is great casting for Harvey Dent, a rigid district attorney who becomes a fatalistic, duality-obsessed crime boss when he’s disfigured during a trial, and squanders that by trying to keep up with Carrey. Granted, he’s also trying to match the tone of this clamorous, paper-thin movie, but while I’ll rewatch “Batman Forever” more often than the disposable likes of “The Family” or “Jason Bourne,” I’d be hard-pressed to think of another movie where Tommy Lee Jones makes the whole thing a little bit worse, or another Tommy Lee Jones part where Aaron Eckhart did it better.

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects / One Perfect ShotBirth.Movies.Death.

Is Natalie Portman a god? Maybe. Every once in a while she gives off a certain Shimmer that suggests she is made of cosmically blessed stardust. But, as we all know, gods aren’t perfect. In Greek lore, gods often became jealous, violent, hateful, cruel, and greedy. In Christianity and Judaism, god murders many. In Hinduism, gods embody all kinds of supernatural flaws. In Hollywood, Natalie Portman joins forces with Thor and Ashton Kutcher in the same year. Portman is all over the map throughout her career. It’s not like she only takes art film roles works with all-time great directors. She started off working with Luc Besson and Michael Mann, but became a household name in what is clearly the worst Star Wars trilogy to date.

With that in consideration though, she primarily has a history of picking great projects and making them even better with her performances. She’s charming, unbelievably talented, seemingly down to Earth, and always looking for a challenge. Maybe that’s why she decided to star in a sub-par romcom with Ashton Kutcher…because it was a challenge? Or maybe Marvel was too young in 2011 to see what sterility it harbored for Thor’s human love interest. Regardless of why she chose to be in “No Strings Attached” and “Thor” that year, her performances in both were as fine as any professional’s would’ve been simply because they are films that do not allow their actors to do interesting things. So, it’s less that she was bad in them, and more that she was invisible in them. She was an A-list placeholder, a pawn in a studio game. It was a depressing year for people who want to see her evolve as an actor. Both performed well at the box office, so she experienced financial success, I’m sure. On the bright side, maybe that allowed her to be more free in her choices down the road, which have been stellar since.

Courtney Howard (@Lulamaybelle), Freelance for VarietySheKnowsFreshFiction.tv

Gwyneth Paltrow has an almost oxymoron-like accessibility about her: most people either love to hate her, or hate to love her. I may not love all the films on her resume, but I certainly do enjoy watching her make the most out of the material. There’s a vulnerable, quiet strength she infuses into her best lead roles – whether she’s playing a scheming cupid in “Emma,” or an empowered woman in “Sliding Doors,” or a depressed poet in “Sylvia.” Even her supporting performances – as an angst-riddled, chain-smoking former wunderkind in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and as a sweet, worried wife in “Seven” – capture her magnetic personality and charm. She might choose an occasional problematic role (“Shallow Hall”), or part where she’s miscast (“A Perfect Murder”), however, it’s still fascinating to see her breathe life into these character’s complexities.

That said, there’s one film that no one – not even the actress herself – can tolerate: “View From The Top.” This joyless rom-com is an absolute slog. Paltrow phones it in playing a naive small-town flight attendant with big dreams to work at a major airline. All her vibrancy is manufactured, cloying and exhausting. Her push-up bra, obnoxiously bright and tight wardrobe, and over-processed big blonde hair do most of the heavy-lifting in terms of character construction. Not only do the plot and ensuing shenanigans fail to take flight, the jokes don’t land. It’s horrendously painful to see her earn her paycheck as it probably made her question the cost.

Daniel Joyaux (@thirdmanmovies), Freelance Contributor for Vanity FairThe VergeMovieMakerFilmotomy

I thought briefly about being the impetuous responder that goes straight for Meryl’s nearly movie-ruining sequence in “Mary Poppins Returns.” But not only does that feel too much like recency bias, it’s also not the type of performance I think is interesting to write about here. A wise man–I think it was Robert Altman, but that should be fact checked–once said, “There is no such thing as bad acting, only bad casting.” I agree with this most of the time, and I think Meryl’s turn in “Mary Poppins Returns” certainly qualifies. But sometimes bad acting is the result of a terrible script, and this is far more interesting to me; because this kind of bad acting can double-down on itself, as though you’re watching the actor just say, “Screw it, I’m gonna make this dialogue work even if it kills me.”

Such is the case with Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham in my all-time favorite bad movie, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Good golly, Rickman just absolutely goes for it in this one, and the material is so utterly hopeless. Every single bad villain cliche you could ever think of is here, and they’re dialed up to 11. Some of the lines are so bad that you’d think they’re improvised, because there’s no way someone could have seriously typed them into a script (for example, when Rickman demands one of his underlings “call off Christmas”). Other lines seem there solely for the sake of the audience getting to hear them delivered in Rickman’s delectable accent, such as when the Sheriff’s henchman asks why he told Robin Hood that he’d cut his heart out with a spoon instead of something sharper, and Rickman lustily growls back, “Because it’s dull you twit, it’ll hurt more!”

Rickman was so so much better than this, but also, he was also kind of never been better than this.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), Contributing Editor of Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.DeathVague VisagesThe List

Plenty of actors I adore have disappointed me over the years but most recently I had the misfortune of sitting through “Holmes & Watson” and hated the performances of just about everybody in it. From Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as the two leads right the way down to (Reilly’s co-star in the wonderful “Stan & Ollie”) Steve Coogan, who shows up for just a few minutes, the cast here is universally dreadful.

Thankfully, it’s rare to watch a group this talented flail so hard trying to make jokes happen, but just about every choice made in the movie is wrong. There’s Ferrell’s accent, which grates in the initial voice-over and somehow gets progressively worse as the thing drags on, the great Kelly Macdonald’s characterisation as a shouting sex addict, and even Rebecca Hall’s autopsy scene with Reilly, an attempt at pointedly bizarre erotica that isn’t nearly as funny as those taking part think it is.

That’s the main crux of the issue with “Holmes & Watson” and basically everybody who features in it: the film isn’t funny, as hard as everybody involved is trying to make it seem as though it is. Great comedic talents like Ferrell and Coogan stare out of the screen in desperation, as though they’re begging us to please for the love of god LAUGH. To put into perspective just how terrible everybody is in this movie, WWE Superstar Braun Strowman shows up as a heavy (confusingly credited as Brawn, with a “w”), is somehow even less convincing than he is as a wrestler, and still doesn’t lower himself to the depths plumbed by Ferrell, Reilly, et al.

Obviously, the two leads were a joy to behold in “Step Brothers” and it’s hard to fault them for trying to recreate that same magic here, but stripping everything back and just letting their chemistry sell a (much smaller, smarter) story would’ve made considerably more sense. Even the idea of playing these characters isn’t terrible (leaning in to the Cumberbatch Sherlock and all his foibles would have made a lot more sense) but here it requires both men to get bigger and bigger and bigger, which they don’t need to do in order to be funny. Forget the massive collars and tea and dirty jokes. Just let Ferrell and Reilly vibe off each other and leave it at that.

Robert Kojder (@writerobwrite19), Flickering Myth

Jake Gyllenhaal is bar none one of the best actors working today, and even when he finds himself in mediocre films he’s usually able to elevate the experience into something watchable. He’s also an actor we sometimes take for granted and deserves an Oscar sooner than later (can this award season stop ignoring “Wildlife” please). He also deserves to be chastised and ridiculed in good fun for taking part in “Southpaw,” a boxing drama that utilizes just about every cliché in the book while demanding the brilliant performer to waste his time overacting and desperately going for broke trying to get the audience to invest in the story. The kicker is that it honestly worked (I know a surprising amount of casual moviegoers that love the film despite critics such as myself not being very kind to it), although the movie is still trash and contains the worst performance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career in its prime. Factoring in his entire body of work, however? Well. I’m still not sure all of the incredible work he’s gone on to do since then is enough to forgive him for taking part in “Prince of Persia”

Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Teen VogueMs. MagazineBonjour Paris

It truly pains me to say this. Lin-Manuel Miranda, whom I adore wholeheartedly, fell short, for me, in “Mary Poppins Returns.” As much as I love him, and admire his creative genius, I found his presence in the film to be somewhat distracting, and his English accent was equally distracting. I felt like I was watching Lin-Manuel Miranda, rather than his character, Jack (which is why his musical and dancing numbers were all fantastic – Miranda is a showman and a gifted one at that). His beaming face and happy smile were always a welcome sight onscreen, to be sure; however, there was something about him living in that world that felt a bit…forced.

I understand his choice to take the role – and Disney’s choice to cast him in the film; one must strike while the iron is hot. And Miranda is, undeniably, on fire right now (and has been a person to watch since “In the Heights” debuted on Broadway in 2005). Disney wanted a box office draw, and for many (myself included), he was the biggest draw of the film. But, I don’t think he was the right actor for this role. However, I have no doubt that Miranda’s star will continue to burn brightly and fill the world with so much more joy, creativity, and unique artistic output, for many years to come. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant

Generally speaking, when a great actor gives a bad performance, it’s because they’re taking enormous risks that don’t pay off. I’d much rather see an actor take risks than just phone in their work.

But then there’s Nicolas Cage, a truly brilliant actor who only seems to try intermittently. His career has become frustratingly lazy in the last fifteen years. He repeatedly falls back on his “crazy” routine, in film after film after film. This isn’t risk-taking anymore; it’s dull repetition. I know some people love seeing him in this mode. I do not. It’s depressing to see such a prodigious talent do poor work, apparently on purpose. Once in a blue moon, Cage makes a movie that reminds me of how great he can be. Then he turns around and makes “211,” “Left Behind,” or “Pay the Ghost.” So that’s my answer: Nicolas Cage in 99% of the performances he gives these days.

Aaron Neuwirth (AaronsPS4), We Live EntertainmentWhy So BluOut Now with Aaron and Abe

A bad performance that quickly came to mind is Will Smith as Cypher Raige in M. Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth.” In addition to wasting the chance to play a character with one of the most badass names since Jason Statham’s Chev Chelios in “Crank,” the biggest problem Smith has is the entire logic of his character, which is to portray an emotionless warrior who punishes his son for not being the same. I am a fan of Smith, particularly the post-2000s portion of his career where he chose to challenge himself, given his ability to deliver on box office potential, for the most part, no matter the type of film.

“After Earth” was a real misfire that found him stranded in an M. Night Shyamalan production that was already quite dire for a variety of other reasons, only to have Smith purposefully dialing down the things that make him an exciting and charismatic performer to watch, even if the film is not of the highest quality. As a stoic jerk of a father, confined to a chair for most of the film, I can’t even have fun with the camp aspects of a movie like this, as it takes itself too dreadfully seriously in a way worse than watching great actors go big in their performances. Smith has had ups and downs since, but his level of involvement in this production only makes it worse, given the presumed thought that this was the most appropriate way to handle it.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to NailFilm Festival Today

Al Pacino gave the worst performance of his career in the 1992 “Scent of a Woman” and somehow earned an Oscar for it. Go figure. The man who worked his way into our collective cinematic consciousness with such 1970s gems as the first two “The Godfather” films (the third one is another story), “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico” and more, has delivered his share of turkeys, as well, occasionally too enamored of his own shtick (or without strong direction) to pull it back. In the case of Martin Brest’s “Scent of a Woman,” Pacino gave into all his worst tendencies, and the result is an unwatchable mess. Hoo hah.

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com

In my eyes, George Clooney has matured to become the closest modern parallel to Cary Grant. As a public figure, he is megawatt coolness armed with style, popularity, and gregariousness.  Clooney so often flaunts that movie star magnetism on screen with roles like Jack Foley in “Out of Sight,” Archie Gates in “Three Kings,” Everett in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Danny Ocean in the “Oceans” trilogy, and many more. The part about Clooney that impresses me even more is how can call upon a jarringly effective dramatic range when necessary to squelch all that flair. One could match every Foley, Gates, Everett, and Ocean with a Ryan Bingham, a Matt King, a Bob Barnes, and a Michael Clayton from “Up in the Air,” “The Descendants,” “Syrianna,” and “Michael Clayton.”

Looking back on his vitae, I find it nearly impossible for George Clooney not to radiate at least a glint of his endless charisma.  Then I’m reminded of “Batman & Robin” and the noxious odor of the “Jingle Bells” song variant about the Caped Crusader comes true. Saddled with an atrocious script and those awful costumes, Clooney’s line readings as both Bruce Wayne and Batman are as flat as the $10 million check that secured his first big payday transitioning from the television ranks. In a zany movie where the other headliners are winking through their overacting with zest, George is the lowest energy and weakest presence when he should have been the strongest, especially with his capacity for fun. Had Clooney embraced the full camp of “Batman & Robin” to even a 50% Adam West-like level of panache, presence, and inflection, maybe, just maybe, Joel Schumacher’s spectacle survives differently to fare a little better.  Since then, the actor was right to apologize 17 years later and has worn the franchise-destroying lampshade better than most others would have in the same position.

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of SoundAlcohollywood

Ethan Hawke has always been one of those rare actors who’s managed to toe the line between thoughtful arthouse fare and big-budget mainstream success; much of this is due to his ragged, everyman presence, that easygoing stoner-philosopher charm that can turn on a dime into relentless, manic intensity. He’s a naturalist at heart, a purveyor of that American-indie school of understated realism (it’s why his turn in “First Reformed” is so completely mesmerizing), but even his bigger mainstream successes knew how to use his brand of relatable charisma. So what in God’s name possessed him to play Jolly, Rihanna’s blinged-out interstellar pimp in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”? Granted, Luc Besson’s mega-budget sci-fi indie is a treasure trove of questionable choices – some might say that’s part of the movie’s charm – but even the most ardent schlock defenders must surely turn their nose up at Hawke’s nauseatingly miscued performance as a sleazy, fast-talking impresario who asks star-twink Valerian (Dane DeHaan) what music he’s into (“You like techno, macro, bio, nano?”) before peacing out so he can enjoy the ridiculous stage performance of Rihanna’s shape-shifting Bubble.

If you’re on the movie’s wavelength by that point, Hawke’s cameo might not bother you, but it’s a real curiosity given his more layered roles to date. Hawke feels like he’s fighting the over-the-top outfit he’s been given – cowboy hat, Napoleonic jacket with glowing buttonholes, ’90s nose ring – alternatingly going too arch and not arch enough. If Jolly were going to work, you need the explosive theatricality of Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod or Benicio Del Toro’s The Collector, not Hawke’s half-baked naturalism. Rather than match the tone of “Valerian”‘s outsized visuals, Hawke’s performance feels more like it belongs in a version of “Time Bandits” directed by Quentin Tarantino. Granted, while I have a great deal of affection for the film,  none of the actors come out smelling good – a cast of sleepy-eyed performers swallowed whole by the ambitiousness of Besson’s candy-colored imagination. But Hawke’s performance feels like a very particular cautionary tale, one that warns gritty indie performers to prepare accordingly before stepping into the realm of comic-book futurism.

Q: What Is the Best Movie Currently Playing in Theaters?

A: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

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