In a world where even the most artistically bereft, lazily conceived, and poorly assembled films can find an audience and pull in a boffo box office, it takes a special kind of cinematic disaster to truly become a flop. In their short lives, flops are repellent in a way that dissuades moviegoers from even using their theaters as an air-conditioned respite from a sweltering summer day.
When such films have died and gone to late-night cable, they’re oddly fascinating, like gory car wrecks on the highway of pop culture. We marvel at the wastefulness of their excessive budgets, gawk at the arrogance that so misjudged public interest, and maybe search for a kernel of value that might offer some redemption to such a sorry failure.
For the last three years, author and critic Nathan Rabin has been plumbing the depths of cinema for his now inaccurately named column, My Year of Flops, a regular highlight of The Onion‘s always sharp AV Club. Popular demand led him to continue the project beyond its initial yearlong stint, and though some people might dread having to live this sort of MST3K-like existence, it’s clear that Rabin feels warmly about these misfit movies. He’s not out to score points on easy targets. There’s a genuine love of film that makes this book version of My Year of Flops an enjoyable read and not just a cascade of negativity. That’s not to say he doesn’t dish it out when it’s deserved, however.
The book contains 35 of the best entries from the column, covering everything from epic disasters like Heaven’s Gate to quaint underachievers like The Rocketeer. Fifteen new entries and a small collection of interviews with flop notables like Richard Dreyfuss (for his turn as Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W) liven things up and provide a little incentive for readers who’ve been following Rabin since the beginning.
Though his primary objective is to entertain, Rabin’s critiques often yield big insights. His inaugural entry, for the ill-fated Cameron Crowe picture Elizabethtown, coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a trope that has since joined the wicked stepmother and magical Negro in the pantheon of lazy characterization. “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” writes Rabin, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors, who use them to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life.” Elizabethtown’s Kirsten Dunst and Garden State’s Natalie Portman exist not as people, but as catalysts for their boyfriend’s self-actualization. As Rabin says, once their mission is achieved, they may as well cease to exist.
My Year of Flops beats up on the expected turkeys like Battlefield Earth and Mike Meyers execrable The Love Guru, but it excels at both highlighting the extraordinarily peculiar and rescuing the unfortunately misunderstood. The former category consists of works like The Apple, a drugged-out 1980 disco musical that pits an unassuming folk-rock duo against Satan, here going by the more terrifying and awe-inspiring name of Mr. Boogalow. The latter includes perfectly fine, if not truly good movies like The Rocketeer and Joe vs. the Volcano, whose high concepts and poor timing turned otherwise laudable efforts into commercial failures.
Perhaps the most revealing entry in My Year of Flops is the book-exclusive critique of Uwe Boll’s Postal (2007) which features an interview with actor Dave Foley, who probably should have known better than to get involved with this film. Foley puts to rest some of the unanswered questions his fans may have had about his participation in Postal. He stresses that the comedic depiction of the 9/11 attacks was added to the script after he signed on and that he attempted to dissuade Boll from going ahead with it, that the full frontal nudity he engages in was his idea, and that Boll is less a director than a performance art provocateur for whom film is merely a tool.
His explanations dovetail nicely with Rabin’s take on the film, where he describes seeing it practically alone in a 1,500 seat theater and finding himself mildly amused and strangely transfixed by the perversion of a film he ultimately deems a “fiasco”. It sheds a brief sliver of light on one of modern film’s most unusual personalities, a man whose career is entirely built upon a loophole in the German tax system.
My Year of Flops succeeds largely due to Rabin’s ability to tease out what’s great about even the worst movies. Three years of subjecting himself to the worst Hollywood has to offer has yet to dampen his spirits. It seems more likely that his positive attitude will help to elevate these films. Except The Love Guru — that movie is garbage.