Movies

Bad Movies, Great Performances

Congratulations to Bradley Cooper, Ben Affleck, and Lady Gaga for being better than their material.

Bradley Cooper in Licorice Pizza, Udo Kier in Swan Song, Jennifer Hudson in Respect, Ben Affleck in The Tender Bar, Nicolas Cage in Pig.
Licorice Pizza, Swan Song, Respect, The Tender Bar, and Pig. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by United Artists, Magnolia Pictures, Amazon Studios, and Neon.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Alison Willmore, and Odie Henderson—about the year in cinema. Below is Entry 6.

Dana, Alison and Bilge,

First things first: Thanks to a huge backlog on COVID tests, my 2-hour PCR test took 26 hours to yield a result. The good news is I tested negative. This is just a plain old, nasty cold. Thank you, three shots of Moderna!

I can’t cancel you for Licorice Pizza, Dana, considering I said it was a teenage sex comedy with no sex and no spine. It wasn’t the age difference that I found objectionable; I could tell stories about my way-too-early sex education that would shock the most hardened reader. It was the coy tiptoeing around the age difference that I found objectionable. You can’t act all innocent and then have your lead adolescent ask to see a grown woman’s boobs. Didn’t the director see Milk Money?! In that Melanie Griffith-starring fiasco, the kids are even younger and the reveal of bodacious ta-ta occurs offscreen. Also, the kids had to pay to see them. So much salaciousness and it’s rated PG-13!

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But I digress. I wasn’t born yesterday, Paul Thomas Anderson! I was actually 3 the year when this movie takes place. Had Licorice Pizza been made when I was 15, it would have played like My Tutor. I didn’t think Hoffman and Haim had an ounce of chemistry together. That appears to be your point, Dana, but if that’s intentional, then I ask why is she even around this kid? I know why he’s around her! I was a 15-year- old boy once. The movie is far more interesting when they’re apart and running their separate side hustles. The waterbed scheme in particular brings us the best segment of the film and the introduction of the one performance that almost made me give this film a positive three-star review despite my reservations.

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If the Oscar nominations are going to toss Bradley Cooper a bone, I hope it’s for his absolutely magnificent turn as Jon Peters in this filmhere. I felt some nostalgia seeing the lines during the gas crisis, and I remembered my Pops driving his gigantic Oldsmobile down by the Holland Tunnel in the hopes of finding a gas station with the green flag that meant they had gas. This whole segment, including that masterful bit of physical comedy with the truck, is the best thing I’ve seen Anderson do. I loved every moment of this subplot, and Cooper’s committed performance is a major part of it. I kept thinking “Babs’ former hairdresser is gonna sue the shit out of this movie!”

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Cooper is on my list of great performances in not-so-great movies, performances I wish the screenplay had left alone. Granted, Cooper’s a supporting role and therefore beholden to plot strings, but I’m also citing leading roles like Udo Kier in the Swan Song (the one that doesn’t star Mahershala Ali). Kier is just wonderful in this, perhaps his best work in a career that spans hundreds of roles. He plays Mr. Pat, an older gay man (a hairdresser like Mssr. Peters) who represents a time when LGBTQ+ people could not be as open about their sexuality. Part of why we can be more candid now is thanks to the struggles of Mr. Pat’s generation. The film acknowledges this while giving Kier multiple opportunities to shine. In my review, I cited a scene where Mr. Pat visits the grave of his lover, a man whose funeral he could not attend. The subtle action Kier performs in this scene tore out my heart. Here was a man whose story I wanted to know, and it’s completely derailed by the main storyline about doing a dead, homophobic Republican lady’s hair!

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Some other noteworthy performances in not-so-great films include Jennifer Hudson’s awesome turn as Aretha Franklin in the standard biopic, Respect. This is the only movie oin my list that I gave a positive review to, but that’s because the movie is Jennifer Hudson. Jumping back to supporting roles in 1973 movies, there’s also Ben Affleck as the only good thing in director George Clooney’s otherwise useless The Tender Bar. Slate’s very own Sam Adams echoes my curiosity about why Clooney’s directorial work is so drab and listless. He’s especially disinterested here, and it’s up to Affleck to light a small fire under this contraption. As a result, this is the role Affleck will probably get nominated for instead of the two better performances he gave in 2021.

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And then there’s Nicolas Cage in Pig. Now, I saw Pig in the worst theater in Boston (sounds like a rejected Sondheim song from Assassins), so that may have contributed to my irritation about the story that Cage is trapped inside. But the performance itself is nothing short of brilliant and it deserved a better movie. Both Bilge and Alison put this film on their ten best list, so perhaps one of you can bring home the bacon on Pig and give it more love than I am. I found some of the plot elements to be just plain dopey, and since it’s very easy to predict what happened to the pig, there’s no suspense. Hit me with a skillet, Bilge!

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I hesitate to wade in the boiling hot waters of House of Gucci debate. I thought the first hour was campy fun. But the remaining 97 minutes were like having my toenails pulled off one by one by a complicated system of accents so bad they made Dick van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins sound like Michael Caine by comparison. Lady Gaga gave the film’s best and only good performance, but her accent was clearly making trouble for moose and squirrel. I found that terribly distracting once the movie “got serious.”

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I don’t envy you, Alison, for braving the crowd to see Spider-Man: Turn on the Audience. That viral clip of nerds screaming and cheering at a sold-out showing was NOTHING compared to the reaction of the Alice Tully Hall audience at the NYFF screening of Dune. I sat in a rickety ass chair in the balcony where the celebrities usually show up during the credits. When the movie ended, the entire theater vibrated with screams and applause. “What the hell are they clapping about?” I asked as I grumpily exited the balcony. I read Dune in high school the same year Lynch’s version came out, and I hated the book. The movie fared better, but it was basically “Dusty Twink Talks Like Cookie Monster Before Becoming the White Messiah.” When I got to the lobby of Alice Tully, I could still hear the applause and the ruckus! So, to all the Dune lovers who mocked that Spidey clip: Glass houses, stones and yada-yada-yada.

Father, Son and House of Odie.

Read the previous entry.

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