In Hollywood, they say a good movie is only a solid script away. Put a decent director and a somewhat salable cast in an excellent screenplay and the resulting quasi-classic will reap plenty of motion picture dividends…at least, that must have been the bag of magic beans Ed Harris bought when he brought the human bubble head Renee Zellweger on to co-star in his formal horse opera Appaloosa. The actor turned filmmaker did have some mighty good source material (a novel by Spencer scribe Robert B. Parker) and he oversaw the story-lining with another performer turned penman, Robert Knott. And with a company of costars including Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henricksen, Jeremy Irons, and Timonty Spall, what could possible go wrong.
The answer is the unworthy Oscar winner (for Cold Mountain) herself. As she did with Leatherheads six months before, Ms. Zellweger has the uncanny ability to instantly suck all the life out of any project she appears in. With Jerry Maguire the sole exception, she is a perfect example of what Tinsel Town would call a “substitute star”. She’s the actress you place in a role when someone better fails to audition, or can’t clear their already project-heavy calendar. Having done little to suggest her A-list consideration (was Bridget Jones’ Diary really that popular? Or good?), she acts as a kind of excellence demolisher. Things can be going along swimmingly, and suddenly her plastic surgery disaster face makes a puffy appearance, and everything goes to Hell.
Thankfully, Appaloosa has so much more going for it that the infamous ruddy Z can’t completely undermine its charms. Leatherheads wasn’t so lucky - then again, it also offered up The Office‘s king of anti-charisma, John Krasinski, as a lead. Indeed, there have been many movies, going back to the days of jaw-dropping contract player contemplation, where bad personnel choices on the part of the production have undermined otherwise decent efforts. Just in the last forty years alone, several worthwhile movies have found themselves floundering under the weight of incompatible casting and the soiled suspension of disbelief that’s comes from same.
During the ‘70s, The Wiz was considered one of Broadway’s true cross culture successes. The African American take on The Wizard of Oz was a toe-tapping, hand clapping delight, and studio suits were anxious to see it translated to the big screen. Higher drama ace Sidney Lumet may have been the first hiring mistake, but moving the famed magical land to a fantasy fueled Manhattan was actually a stroke of genius. And when it was announced that a pre-Thriller Michael Jackson was playing the Scarecrow and Ted Ross was playing the Lion (a role which won him a Tony on the Great White Way), things seemed solid.
Then the role of Dorothy was awarded, and with it, much of the movie’s hoped for success was dashed. Diana Ross had received some decent notices for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, and Motown sugar daddy Berry Gordy had managed to finagle an Oscar nomination for the former Supreme. But by 1978, the dime store diva was 34, far too old to play the adventurous Kansas teen. A few rewrites later, and the new Dorothy was a dowdy teacher, in her late 20s and still as naïve as a young gal from the Midwest (by way of the Five Boroughs) was supposed to be. While diehards complained, at least she could sing. When the Tinman and Wizard were cast, Lumet turned to comedy for his caterwauling. Nipsey Russell, of game show fame, became the metal head without a heart, and Richard Pryor was implausibly placed as the ruler of the fictional land. As a result, both roles had their songs significantly cut.
While it wasn’t a disaster the size of Paint Your Wagon (in which noted non-crooners Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood warbled off key), it proved that proper casting was necessary to make something as already uneasy as a big screen musical circa the Me Decade work. Twenty years later, something similar would happen to noted speculative fiction author Richard Matheson and the long dormant adaptation of his novel What Dreams May Come. One of those classic “unproducible” screenplays that Hollywood likes to rumor about, several famed filmmakers had tried to conquer the complex visual and metaphoric meanings in the story of a man who travels into the afterlife to save his suicidal wife. With the advent of CGI, and the big screen buzz earned by Map of the Human Heart director Vincent Ward, it seemed like Dreams was finally a go.
All that was needed was a cast. Fresh from his Academy Award for Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding Jr. signed on. Soon afterward, noted Swedish star Max Von Sydow agreed to appear. But when it came time to create the perfect married couple, the duo that would literally die to save each others souls, Ward picked the improbable pair of Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra. The “He” had just walked away with his own gold statue for Good Will Hunting. The “She” showed promise alongside Wesley Snipes in Spike Lee’s interracial romance Jungle Fever. Together, however, they were like oil and asphalt, absorbing each other’s potential talents and rendering them flat and lifeless. Dour and depressed is not Williams’ strong suit. His lost looks often seem like the suppression of a laugh, and when forced to emote beyond basic disbelief, he’s inert. Sciorra complements him note for absent note.
And the sad thing is, What Dreams May Come is a beautifully written and rendered experience. Ward went out of his way to render his versions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in unforgettable imagery, and with the help of some major memory boarding, earned some warranted Oscar love. The rest of the movie should have been equally celebrated - except Williams and Sciorra destroyed that possibility. It was something the stream of consciousness comic would do to other projects with potential like Bicentennial Man and Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia. Oddly enough, it was Ward who paid the price. It would be seven years before his unsung gem River Queen saw a small, limited theatrical release.
Recently, Bryan Singer tried to revive the Superman franchise with his cracked continuation of Richard Donner’s spurned sequel from 1980. Locking in Kevin Spacey as a pitch perfect Lex Luthor, and discovering the unsung talents of Brandon Routh as his above-expectations Man of Steel, all the Usual Suspects director needed was a proper Lois Lane to fill out the fabled trio. His choice challenged all expectations - 23 year old Kate Bosworth. With a decent resume that included turns in The Rules of Attraction, Wonderland, and the Spacey led Bobby Darrin biopic Beyond the Sea, she seemed capable of carrying the part - that is, until the overwrought script saddled her with a young kid, a bad case of self importance, and a Pulitzer Prize.
It was clearly too much for Kate, who decided the best way to respond to said character dimension was to act as if everything she saw was boring as Hell. Her non-reactions reduced much of the heroics to moments of arch anticlimax. While Singer was struggling to bring something epic to the material, his Lois was losing the likability battle with the audience. While not as big a snafu as turning Darth Vader into a broken boy band member with a lox’s acting chops, it argued for a creative cluelessness that seems to permeate many Hollywood hires. Ability means nothing when a name - preferably from a known TV series - can be utilized instead. And if you can catch pop culture currency at the same time, all the better.
Clearly, Ms. Zellweger is considered something of a sure thing - bad Botox or not. Otherwise, why would both Clooney and Harris cast her? Her obvious shortcomings are evident in every scene she sullies (she’s a bit better defined in Leatherheads, if that’s any solace), and yet IMDb has her featured in four future releases. Call it the byproduct of an excellent agent or the blinding glimmer from her (minor) array of awards, but she clearly gets the jobs. Trophies should never gauge talent - or even better, suggest chemistry. Still, twice this year, a perfectly good film was flummoxed by the appearance of someone who should never have been considered for the part in the first place. Substitute or not, casting can definitely kill a worthwhile effort. One imagines Mr. Harris and Clooney agreeing on that. Audiences certainly will.