(c) Columbia EMI Warners
The Guardian recently ran a series of features where its resident team of film reviewers wrote about the film they believe is the most overrated one of all time. We had Peter Walker writing about There will be Blood (2007), Alex Hess about The Dark Knight (2008), Stuart Heritage about Pulp Fiction (1994) and the spoiler-crazy Peter Bradshaw about Billy Liar (1963). Perhaps the bravest man of all, though, was Xan Brooks, who wrote a piece claiming that everybody in the world (apart from him) had got it wrong about John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).
This, as they say, got me thinking. What movies would I accuse of being wildly overrated by critics and audiences? Well, off the top of my head, I can think of a few. Here they are:
The Graduate (1967), directed by Mike Nichols
Barbarella (1968), directed by Roger Vadim
The Italian Job (1969), directed by Peter Collinson
Planet of the Apes (1968), directed by Franklin J. Schaffer
Silent Running (1972), directed by Douglas Trumbull
The Deer Hunter (1978), directed by Michael Cimino
The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irv Kershner
Chariots of Fire (1981), directed by Hugh Hudson
Poltergeist (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper
Ghostbusters (1984), directed by Ivan Reitman
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), directed by John Hughes
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), directed by Barry Levinson
Beetlejuice (1988), directed by Tim Burton
Born on the Fourth of July (1989), directed by Oliver Stone
Batman Returns (1992), directed by Tim Burton
The Remains of the Day (1993), directed by James Ivory
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), directed by Mike Newell
Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), directed by Wes Anderson
Morvern Callar (2002), directed by Lynne Ramsay
Zombieland (2009), directed by Rueben Fleischer
The Hangover (2009), directed by Todd Philips
Actually, I feel guilty about topping that list with The Graduate, whose director Mike Nichols died just the other day. But I could never fathom the film’s sudden change of gears wherein Dustin Hoffman stops moping over Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and starts moping over her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). There’s also the issue of the film’s musical soundtrack. Much of your tolerance of The Graduate depends on your tolerance of Simon and Garfunkel. And my tolerance of them is about as high as my tolerance of Ebola.
The Graduate is classed as a comedy and there are plenty of those on my overrated-movie list. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I have to admit that many film comedies fail to make me laugh. I find it even more of a turnoff when I get the impression that a film – its writer, director and performers – are desperately signalling to the audience: “Hey! This is a comedy! We’re being really funny here! Laugh! Come on, laugh!” As my Dad has said more than once, “I can’t stand a man who laughs at his own jokes.”
Barbarella and The Italian Job are examples of a comic sub-genre I particularly despise: the would-be cool, would-be zany, definitely-is smug swinging-1960s comedy. Yes, I know the ending of The Italian Job with those three Minis whizzing around Rome is brilliant, but the earlier stuff where Michael Caine struts his groovy stuff about swinging-1960s London just makes me wince.
Meanwhile, I managed to crack a smile twice during Ghostbusters. On both occasions Bill Murray had just opened his mouth and said something properly funny. And Murray’s shuffling cameo is about the only thing that amused me during that inexplicably-lauded spoof on walking dead movies, Zombieland. So here’s a lesson for moviemakers. If your comedy film doesn’t actually have any comedy in it, parachute in Bill Murray and then everyone in the world (apart from me) will think it’s hilarious.
A couple of popular comedies I find especially despicable. The Hangover has an amusing premise, one I can identify with from past experience – waking up after a night on the town with no memory of what you did but with plenty of incriminating evidence about what you might have done – but the subsequent guest appearance by convicted rapist Mike Tyson, whom the script assures us is a ‘nice guy’, is repellent. (With gruesome irony, it transpires that the protagonists weren’t just drunk when they had the collective memory blackout: they’d been drugged with roofies, aka flunitrazepam, aka the ‘date-rape’ drug.)
Meanwhile, the moral of that smug, oh-so-1980s comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off seems to be that if you’re young, cocky, good-looking and financially privileged, you can get away with doing anything. And if you wreck a Ferrari belonging to the bullying father of your dweeby, less-advantaged pal, it’s the pal who’ll have to go home, face the father and take the blame. (No wonder Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is said to be a favourite film of Simon Cowell.)
Moving from comedy to science fiction, I could never understand the respect people feel for the original Planet of the Apes and the love people feel for Douglas Trumbull’s touchy-feely eco-fable Silent Running. The premises of both movies are deeply illogical. And if a filmmaker’s trying to convince me that the fantastical, science-fictional world being presented onscreen is real, then he or she had better get the underlying logic right.
In Planet of the Apes, we’re supposed to believe that Charlton Heston doesn’t realise that he’s back on earth, albeit in the far future, until he discovers the Statue of Liberty buried up to her chest in sand. But hold on, Chuck, doesn’t the fact that all the intelligent apes you’ve met before then are speaking fluent English give you a clue about where you are? Meanwhile, the ending of Silent Running indicates that the earth’s last remaining flora and fauna can survive perfectly well in those little greenhouse-hemispheres if they’re untethered and floating free in space. They don’t have to be attached to a fleet of spaceships, as they are at the beginning of the film. Yet the film’s plot is set in motion by the spaceship company deciding that the spaceships are needed for commercial use and, for some unnecessary and illogical reason, the greenhouse-hemispheres are jettisoned and blown up.
Incidentally, The Empire Strikes Back makes my list too. I suspect a lot of people admire it because, unlike the other films in the original Star Wars trilogy, it dares to finish on a downer: Darth Vader reveals himself as Luke Skywalker’s father and Han Solo is carted away by Boba Fett. But I think it’s a badly structured film. The first part, set on the ice planet, is great; but the last part, set on the cloud city, is rather flat and uninteresting. I can’t understand why George Lucas didn’t start it on the cloud city, end it on the ice planet and retain the downer climax.
Looking at the list I see there’s a few 1970s / 1980s Vietnam movies on it – The Deerhunter (another film that ignored logic and yet the critics seemed not to notice), Good Morning, Vietnam and Born on the First of July. I suspect they got so much praise at the time because the critics were delighted that Hollywood was finally daring to make serious films about the Vietnam War. Thus, their shortcomings were overlooked. I like Oliver Stone’s other movies from this period, but Fourth of July, a vehicle for the po-faced Tom Cruise, seems to me grimly earnest, in-your-face and humourless. (I know Stone is often earnest and in-your-face, but he usually manages to be funny about it.)
Another key director from that era whose work I generally like is Tim Burton, but I just can’t understand why people rate his Beetlejuice and Batman Returns. Beetlejuice is especially disappointing. It has a good idea – two mellow ghosts inhabiting a house that becomes ‘haunted’ by a family of obnoxious living people – but when Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice character takes centre-stage it becomes an unoriginal mess, with its imagery borrowed from other movies like Gremlins (1984) and The Evil Dead II (1987). And while Burton seems to plagiarise other people for Beetlejuice, I find David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive disappointing because in it he seems to plagiarise himself, using themes and ideas he’d already used in Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and Lost Highway (1997).
Some acclaimed films I don’t like not only because I think they’re overrated, but also because they created trends – a host of ghastly imitators and cash-ins followed in their wake. That flashy-but-empty, special-effects-laden rollercoaster of a horror movie Poltergeist paved the way for a load of other horror movies that were, well, flashy-but-empty, special-effects-laden rollercoasters. In British cinema, Four Weddings and a Funeral, a jolly-hockey-sticks romantic comedy set in a chocolate-box version of Britain and featuring a bunch of rich, posh characters led by Hugh Grant, soon caused a rash of jolly-hockey-sticks romantic comedies set in a chocolate-box version of Britain and featuring a bunch of rich, posh characters who were very often led by Hugh Grant.
Finally, I found a few films underwhelming because I’d already read the books on which they were based. And no matter what the films’ merits were, they just didn’t measure up to the standard of the books. That said, even if I hadn’t read Alan Warner’s novel Morvern Callar beforehand, I wouldn’t have enjoyed Lynne Ramsay’s pretentious, needlessly-humourless take on it in 2002.
And I feel sorry for poor old James Ivory. Not only did his film version of The Remains of the Day fall short of Kazuo Ishiguro’s source novel, but it had the bad luck of being released around the same time as Martin Scorsese’s period movie The Age of Innocence (1993). Compared to the astonishing amount of detail that Scorsese put into recreating the New York of the 1870s, which made you feel like you’d stepped through a time portal and really landed in a different era, the 1930s and 1940s world of The Remains of the Day just looked artificial and phony. You could never shake off the suspicion that if Ivory’s cameras moved a fraction further to the left or the right, you’d glimpse a satellite dish squatting on a background rooftop.
(c) Columbia Pictures