The Bottom Shelf

Academy of the Underrated Edition

When the High Hat overlords announced the theme of this issue at our quarterly breakfast meeting at the Route 10 Hooters in Whippany, NJ, I must admit it came as a slap in the face. Here I am, your movie janitor, committed to sifting through the dregs of the motion picture arts and sciences to bring my readers astute and witty analysis of the very worst filmdom has to offer. Now I was being asked to contribute happy thoughts on neglected gems?

The fact is, the whole concept of ‘underrated’ has always seemed a slippery one to me. Whenever a particular movie is deluged with especially scathing reviews, you can always count on some stubborn contrarian or glib jackass declaring it a masterpiece a week later. (See the collected works of Armond White, the bomb-throwing New York Press critic who recently praised Transporter 2 as “the most purely gleeful example of movie oomph since Joseph Kahn's Torque.”)

Then there’s the Heaven’s Gate syndrome, whereby the passage of time allows a white elephant to accrue the aura of a neglected masterpiece. Dare to look at Michael Cimino’s folly with fresh eyes today and you better be prepared for them to glaze over. The film opens with a commencement at Harvard in 1870 in which Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt, two of the craggiest actors of our time, would have us believe they are fresh-faced college graduates. This turgid scene sets the pace for the movie, which is reminiscent of my grandmother’s pace in the Boston Marathon.

Honestly, the West was settled in less time than it takes for Kristofferson to get off his train to Wyoming. It’s hard to pick out a scene that doesn’t go on at least three times longer than it should. Every thirty minutes or so, there’s another would-be tour de force of a set piece, but the only one that really works is the roller-skating sequence that ends with Kristofferson helping a drunken Jeff Bridges out of a barn and into a gorgeous sepia-toned cloud of dust (courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond), then heading back inside to dance with his gal. And when the picture finally, mercifully, fades to black, our reward is one ominous word: INTERMISSION.

I shared my reluctance to devote precious Bottom Shelf space to this specious concept with the High Hat honchos, much to their consternation. But then, as I savored my Hooters hot wings and gazed contemplatively at the bright orange shorty-shorts of our server Danielle, inspiration struck. Why not round up five of the all-time most notorious crimes against cinema, all of which would seem to be ideal candidates for Bottom Shelfdom, and determine which, if any, qualify as underrated?

In order for this experiment to work, all of the candidates would have to be previously unseen by me. That ruled out any number of infamous turkeys, from Plan 9 From Outer Space to Ishtar to Hudson Hawk. With the help of Rotten Tomatoes and the Internet Movie Database, however, I was able to conjure up a truly fearsome fivesome of celluloid suckage. At least, that’s the reputation that preceded them. Might there be gold in them thar heaps o’ dung? Let us proceed.

Howard the Duck (1986)

Comic book movies are a dime a dozen these days, but such was not the case in the pre-CGI era. You need look no further than this critically reviled piece of box office offal for reasons why. In his funnybook incarnation, Howard was a sardonic, sarcastic character trapped in a satiric and surrealistic “world he never made” — a seventies cult hero, part and parcel of his time. By 1986, he was long gone in a cloud of acrimony (on the part of creator Steve Gerber) and lawsuits (on behalf of the Walt Disney corporation, fiercely protective of the pantsless waterfowl image).

That didn’t stop George Lucas, looking for something to pass the time during his fifteen year vacation between Star Wars trilogies. Bringing the Master of Quack Fu to the big screen was an odd choice, to say the least, given that Howard had basically been erased out of existence by the Disney suit, but the benevolent Mouse House approved a hideous re-design of the character, allowing the project to go forward.

As much fun as it is to blame Lucas for every pop cultural misstep of the past three decades, in this case he is mere co-conspirator with director Willard Huyck and screenwriters Huyck and Gloria Katz. Assuming they looked at Gerber’s comics at all, this is what they absorbed from them: duck puns are funny. They then spent millions of dollars in a fruitless effort to prove it.

Howard lives on a planet of ducks. He has posters in his living room for Breeders of the Lost Stork and My Little Chickadee starring Mae Nest and W.C. Fowls. One evening while relaxing in his favorite easy chair, he is sucked into the cosmos through a wormhole and deposited on our world, in Cleveland.

You youngsters may not remember this, but Cleveland was an all-purpose punch line in the seventies. It’s still funny — after all, they have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — but it’s not like the good old days when their river and their mayor were catching on fire and Randy Newman was writing songs about them. Huyck and Katz do nothing to make Cleveland funny in the movie because they’re too busy coming up with zingers like “No more Mr. Nice Duck!”

Today even the worst comic book movies attempt to offer up some sort of production design or visual appeal, but Howard the Duck can’t even be bothered with a little Cleveland ambiance, unless you count the punk rocker who proclaims, upon seeing our hero for the first time, “I’ve been doin’ too much toot!” The general reaction to Howard’s presence is summed up by the bouncer who snorts, “That costume don’t fool me!” No shit. It’s perfectly understandable that everyone he meets thinks Howard is a little guy in a duck suit because it’s obvious Howard is a little guy in a duck suit. I guess you have to give the movie some points for honesty. Don’t you wish Joey Pants had walked up to Ben Affleck in Daredevil and sneered, “That bad ‘blind acting’ don’t fool me”?

The poverty of imagination Lucas, Huyck and Katz bring to the proceedings is truly staggering. Why do you need a talking duck if half the running time is comprised of excruciating car chases and inane slapstick? What’s with Lea Thompson’s sub-Benatar punk band, and why is she wearing a Pekingese on her head? When do you think George Lucas is going to get around to releasing a restored and digitally upgraded version of this one on DVD?

Underrated? Duck, no. It’s eggsecrable.

Leonard Part 6 (1987)

This inexplicable Bill Cosby vehicle is remembered as a monumental flop, which implies that some money must have actually been spent to produce it. From the evidence on the screen, said money must have gone to Bill Cosby, Bill Cosby’s personal assistant, Bill Cosby’s pool man, Bill Cosby’s bookie and perhaps even Bill Cosby’s proctologist.

An opening montage promises much: Cos driving an armored Porsche. Cos performing ballet in a spaceman outfit. Cos riding an ostrich through a flaming neon sign. Had the movie simply continued in this vein, presenting one random, bizarre Cos feat after another for its entire 84-minute running time, it might have been more entertaining and made much more sense than the existing feature.

Sadly, there is a story of sorts, involving a crazed vegetarian bent on world domination, which she plans to achieve through animal mind control. After various CIA agents are attacked by squirrels, gophers and rainbow trout, Agent Leonard Parker (Cosby) is called out of retirement to handle the case. (The joke of the title is that Leonard’s previous five adventures have been confiscated in the interest of world security. Sadly, the same criteria apparently did not apply to the Ernest movies.)

Slapstick sequences featuring Leonard battling vegetarian warriors by firing missiles from his armpits alternate with limp scenes of domestic comedy that might have been lifted from one of the star’s failed post-Cosby Show sitcoms. A subplot about Leonard’s 20-year-old daughter performing nude in a play seems inspired by Cosby’s well-publicized distaste for Lisa Bonet’s raunchy shenanigans in Angel Heart. In the meat-throwing climax, a gay henchman accidentally swallows a hot dog, causing his head to explode.

Underrated? Even Cosby warned his fans not to shell out for this one when it opened in theaters. He may be responsible for producing, co-writing and starring in Leonard Part 6, but at least he got one thing right.

The Postman (1997)

This one is really hard to explain, but that’s why I’m here, right? Once upon a time, Kevin Costner starred as a post-apocalyptic drifter-turned-savior in a movie called Waterworld. For months and months leading up to the release of that particular film, the entertainment press churned out story after story about its skyrocketing budget, ballooning schedule and numerous production snafus. Its release was gleefully anticipated as a box office calamity for the ages, but then it came out and just sort of did okay.

Costner apparently interpreted this as a moral victory and somehow managed to convince another major studio to bankroll a movie in which he would star as a post-apocalyptic drifter-turned-savior. Imagine — Mel Gibson has spent his whole career trying to be Jesus Christ and all Costner ever wanted was to be Mad Max.

Set in 2013, The Postman wastes little time explaining the end of the world as we know it. (Don’t worry — it wastes an enormous amount of time on plenty of other things.) There was a global war and then a few plagues for good measure and now everyone dresses like Duran Duran in the “Wild Boys” video and strains their drinking water through their socks. (This counts as an improvement over Waterworld, where the survivors had nothing to drink but their own pee.)

Costner wanders the wasteland talking to his mule and performing Shakespeare at various outposts of civilization. His bad acting becomes a running joke, and when he proclaims “It is a tale told by a moron,” you begin to think this Costner fellow may be more self-aware than anyone had imagined. Indeed, in the early going, The Postman is not an entirely humorless effort, featuring as it does an army of brutes eschewing an evening viewing of Universal Soldier in favor of The Sound of Music, as well as James Russo being eaten by a lion.

The central premise of the movie — that the source of inspiration that powers the rebirth of the American dream might just be the U.S. Postal Service — is certainly worthy of a chortle or two. Costner stumbles upon a dead mailman, steals his uniform and pack, and takes on his route. At first shunned and scorned, the Postman eventually becomes a near-mythical Johnny Appleseed figure, inspiring dozens of followers to take the oath and become postal workers for the restored United States of America.

This doesn’t sit well with General Bethlehem (Will Patton — if you don’t know him by name, you at least recognize him as That Creepy Balding Guy Who Isn’t Ed Harris), the military leader of the post-America wasteland, who sees the Postman as a challenge to his authority. Their inevitable confrontation approaches ... and approaches ... and approaches. You lose all feeling in your legs. Distant stars go supernova and collapse into black holes. Your watch has stopped, and even if it still worked, the passage of time has altered the Earth’s rotation to such a degree that hours and minutes as we knew them have lost all meaning.

It’s a long-ass movie, is what I’m saying, and by the end, all traces of humor and self-deprecation on Costner’s part have been wiped away. Children serenade him with a chorus of “America the Beautiful.” Villagers facing a firing squad chant “Ride, Postman! Ride!” A statue is commissioned. Tom Petty makes a cameo, but we are mercifully spared a Jeff Lynne-produced cover of “Please, Mr. Postman.”

Underrated? Fans of pompous, self-important vanity projects will not find it wanting, but otherwise you can mark this one “Return to Sender.”

Gigli (2003)

Based solely on its critical reception, it would have been easy to confuse the release of Gigli in theaters with the release of a notorious child murderer from prison. The title became an instant punchline, made even funnier by the fact that no one could pronounce it. (As the title character informs us repeatedly throughout the movie, it “rhymes with really.”) Few movies could be as terrible as it was purported to be, and indeed, Gigli isn’t one of them. Mind you, this should not be construed as a ringing endorsement.

The wave of bad publicity that crushed the movie can largely be blamed on the off-screen shenanigans of its stars, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. You could argue that it was unfair of reviewers to take out their frustrations on the movie itself, and you would have a point, but let us not forget how truly obnoxious the whole Ben ‘n Jen circus became. Somebody had to pay and writer/director Martin Brest got caught in the crossfire.

Brest was originally set to direct Rain Man but resigned over creative differences. Apparently he never got over them, because Gigli revolves around a similar autistic character, this one the brother of the L.A. district attorney. In an effort to blackmail the DA, a lowlife thug enlists two contractors, Larry Gigli (Affleck) and Ricky (Lopez), to kidnap and babysit the kid. Gigli and Ricky mistrust each other, especially when Gigli learns Ricky is a lesbian and immune from his charms, but their relationship evolves in an almost interesting way as Ricky undermines Gigli’s masculinity, engineering a gender role-reversal of sorts.

Meanwhile, Brest the screenwriter undermines Brest the idea man. His notion of stylized tough guy dialogue amounts to putting words like “excoriate” and tortured syntax like “Might you know what it is I’m getting at?” in the mouths of his goombah characters. That’s a minor offense compared to Lopez’s big speech on the merits of the vagina over the penis, a monologue that must be a big hit at off-Broadway auditions these days. J-Lo is also stuck with a sub-Tarantino soliloquy on the subtleties of ripping someone’s eyeball out of its socket. It’s almost harder to listen to than “Jenny From the Block.”

As the not terribly bright protagonist, Affleck is playing to his strengths. His Gigli is like one of those blowdried dumbasses who works for Christopher on The Sopranos and ends up getting whacked for doing something really stupid. Christopher Walken makes an unusually constipated appearance, while Al Pacino shows up at the end to deliver one of his patented late-career hameos.

Underrated? Yes, but only when you take the Ben Affleck Sliding Scale into consideration. The critical outrage over Gigli might be understandable in a vacuum, but in the context of the Affleck oeuvre, it’s a little puzzling. A cursory check of the Rotten Tomatoes website, which measures national critical approval, shows Gigli with a freshness rating of 7% on the Tomatometer, while Reindeer Games garnered 23% and Paycheck pleased 25% of the critics. Even Surviving Christmas edged out Gigli, with an 8% freshness rating. Clearly the outrage is misplaced here.

Mitigating factor: Armond White called it “the only Hollywood movie of the summer with ideas.”

The Brown Bunny (2004)

Have you ever played “Long Car Trip”? It’s a good way to pass the time while, say, taking a long car trip. You propose a choice of passengers to your fellow traveler, who must sort out the pros and cons and then respond with a definitive answer and an explanation for the decision. It may not sound like much, but you can easily kill a hundred miles or so debating the merits of “Long car trip — Rob Schneider or Rob Zombie?”

The Brown Bunny is Long Car Trip: Vincent Gallo. You are Gallo’s passenger as he drives his van across the country, collects dead bugs on his windshield and pops in unexpectedly on the decrepit parents of his ex-girlfriend. It’s not a short trip, but we can be thankful that the film’s world premiere was about as well-received as a subpoena, so it’s not as long as it once was. In fact, the experience is somewhat soothing and meditative (depending on your Gordon Lightfoot tolerance), at least until the shocking finale, which isn’t at all shocking because if there’s one thing everyone knows about The Brown Bunny, it’s that Gallo gets a big ol’ sloppy blowjob from Chloe Sevigny at the end.

Actually, there is a final twist (unrelated to the disputed veracity of Gallo’s schlong), one we’ve seen before but which manages to be somewhat affecting nonetheless. Like the rest of The Brown Bunny, it’s raw and intimate and there’s an undercurrent of sadness competing with an undercurrent of embarrassment, kind of like karaoke night in a cancer ward.

Underrated? Yes and no. It’s underrated if you go by Roger Ebert’s original review, which called it the worst movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival and compared it unfavorably to his colonoscopy. However, it’s overrated if you go by Roger Ebert’s review of the shortened version, which claimed that “editing has set free the good film inside.”

This brings us to the end of another edition of the Bottom Shelf. I hope you found it more enjoyable than Roger Ebert’s colonoscopy.