Take two: 22 potentially great movies botched in execution and ready to be remade
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1. The Joneses (2010)
The inspiration for this Inventory, Derrick Borte’s writing and directing debut blows a brilliant satirical premise: A “family” of viral marketers moves into an upscale neighborhood and subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) pushes products on their new friends, some of whom can’t afford them. More than just a line of products, from frozen hors d’oeuvres to shiny new sports cars, they’re selling a lifestyle—glamorous, blissful, and completely illusory. In an era where people don’t think twice about acting as walking advertising—in fact, people pay for the privilege of owning T-shirts and purses emblazoned with company logos—The Joneses could have been a cutthroat satire on modern consumerism. And there’d be no cause to replace David Duchovny, who’s right at home as a vacuous new salesman who’s a natural on the job. But this premise requires Buñuelian cold-bloodedness all the way through, and Borte chickens out in the end, adding “heart” and life lessons to a comedy that should be relentlessly cynical and nasty to the core.
2-5. The Final Destination series (2000-present)
The first four films of the Final Destination series are an increasingly cruddy run of cinematic tripe, combining slasher-film theatrics (with death itself in the role of Jason/Freddy/Michael), Saw-style Rube Goldberg plot mechanics, and lazy, exploitative torture-porn aesthetics. No big loss, right? Well, maybe not. Unlike any number of latter-day horror franchises, the Final Destination series—in the hands of anyone but the people who actually made all the movies—could be narrowed down into an extremely compelling fright flick with the same ideas, but entirely different emphasis. The seeds of an intense psychological horror film are already present in the notion of people trying to figure out whether they can cheat their deaths, and in the hands of a real auteur who could focus on the existential terror of people foreseeing their own demises, it could become a fairly profound work of creepy philosophical horror instead of just another third-rate gorefest.
6. Hollywood Ending (2002)
Remaking a Woody Allen movie seems faintly ludicrous, like somebody attempting a revised, updated version of a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor routine. Lately, though, this sui generis talent has let some dynamite comic premises fall painfully flat—mostly, it seems, because he couldn’t fit the necessary rewrites into his needlessly hectic, film-per-year schedule. Nowhere is the vast gulf between idea and execution more evident than in 2002’s Hollywood Ending, which found the Woodman as a movie director who suddenly goes psychosomatically blind on the eve of shooting his new picture. Just as the basic absurdity of a blind filmmaker threatens to turn stale, Woody introduces an inspired foil: production translator Barney Cheng, whose ostensible job is to facilitate communication between the director and his Chinese cinematographer, but who’s quickly drafted into the far more important position of his boss’ surrogate eyes. And then, just as that new twist threatens to get gut-bustingly funny, the film inexplicably gives Cheng—its best character—the permanent boot. Let’s try that again, making their partnership the focus. And without in any way disparaging Cheng, who was terrific for the few scenes he was allotted, may we suggest the ever-brilliant and suddenly more high-profile (thanks to his recurring role on Lost) Ken Leung?
7. The Stuff (1985)
If he weren’t, you know, still alive, this article could be called the Larry Cohen Memorial Inventory, because Cohen has spent decades crafting ingenious, pulpy B-movie premises that were more often than not half-realized. (See also: Phone Booth, below.) And with 1985’s The Stuff, he came up with a doozy of a satirical hook: a burbling, irresistible, whipped-cream-like substance that consumes its consumers from the inside. First discovered spilling out from a snow bank like struck oil, “The Stuff” becomes an instant sensation on the market, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At its best, The Stuff takes shots at a junk-food nation where everyone thoughtlessly consumes the same things, whether they’re good for them or not. And it’s got one in a series of enjoyably spacey Michael Moriarty performances. But Cohen never figured out how to make “The Stuff” remotely scary—if that should have been his intention at all—and to say he sometimes misses the satirical target is putting it kindly. The “Where’s the beef?” lady turns up for a cameo.
8. Alien Nation (1988)
Long before District 9 gave us its apartheid-inspired view of extraterrestrial infestation, Alien Nation opened the door. Set three years after a race known only as The Newcomers arrived on Earth, Nation shows a Los Angeles struggling to deal with an influx of new, somewhat inexplicable life. The Newcomers are treated like any other immigrants, given human names and allowed to work alongside other Americans, an arrangement that causes no end of political and social strife. The world is expertly realized, and Mandy Patinkin does terrific work as Sam Francisco, a Newcomer struggling to make it as a police detective. But the movie never really comes together, as the central mystery that Patinkin and his human partner James Caan work to unravel is never as engaging as what's happening on the sidelines. The Newcomers’ distinctive look and culture was striking enough to inspire a short-lived television series, and a remake today could delve more into that culture, and downplay the predictable cops-and-drug-dealers angle.
9-10. Human Nature (2001) and Be Kind Rewind (2008)
There’s no doubt that Michel Gondry is a conceptual genius, as evidenced by a catalog of extraordinarily innovative (and scrupulously handcrafted) music videos for the likes of Björk, The White Stripes, Kylie Minogue, and many others. But sustaining those conceits over feature length hasn’t always been easy for Gondry, who’s been dogged at times by pacing problems and a whimsical streak that gets oppressive by the third act. Gondry brought the full force of his imagination to bear on Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, one of the best films of the ’00s, but Human Nature, his first crack at a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, wasn’t nearly as sure-handed. As usual, Kaufman’s story presents a world of thematic possibilities, following two scientists in their efforts to “civilize” a hirsute wild man with simian roots—a job they accomplish all too well. The setup has all kinds of promise, but Gondry can’t orchestrate the chaos of the final third, when the subject becomes the center of a bizarre love triangle and runs amok in polite society at large.
Gondry has no one but himself to blame for 2008’s Be Kind Rewind, which has an ingenious premise that reflects his analog sensibility perfectly, but falls curiously flat in execution. Still pushing VHS in a DVD world, Jack Black and Mos Def play video-store clerks who stage camcorder recreations of popular titles like Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2 after all their cassettes get magnetically erased. The recreations are funny and charming as far as they go, but Gondry gets so hung up in nostalgic mood that the movie slips into lethargy. Both movies seem a mere rewrite or reedit away from greatness.
11. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Sometimes a project turns out just good enough that it’s easy to see how it could’ve been better. Hot Tub Time Machine reportedly came together quickly: Josh Heald sold a script with a funny title and a decent premise, and director Steve Pink and his cast did their best to breathe more life into it in the short time they were given. If they’d had more time and more ambition, Hot Tub Time Machine could’ve been another Groundhog Day, showing how messed-up people repeat parts of their lives in an attempt to understand and correct their mistakes. John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson are very funny as old high-school friends who return to the ski resort they used to rule as teenagers—and eventually return to their past, via the title object—and the idea of three broken dudes taking a second look at their glory days is a good one. But Hot Tub Time Machine falls back too easily on gross-out gags, lame ’80s-mocking, and worn-out slobs-vs.-snobs routines, rather than really taking the time to establish who the heroes used to be, how they blew it, and what was fun about their high-school years. If only there was some sort of device that would let the creative team go back and try this movie again.
12. It’s All About Love (2003)
Panned at Sundance and scoffed at in utero by no less than Ingmar Bergman, Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love actually has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, its merits never cohere onscreen: The Danish director’s first film in English employs a sprawling backdrop of futuristic science fiction and eerie magic realism that, while flagrantly violating a couple major tenets of the Dogme 95 manifesto he coauthored, still winds up feeling jumbled and claustrophobic. In Vinterberg’s vision of “the hot summer of 2021,” Joaquin Phoenix plays a deadpan everyman swept up in surreal circumstances beyond his comprehension, let alone his control. Sadly, it’s easy for the audience to empathize; as a hushed, soul-crushing apocalypse seems to slowly descend over the world, Phoenix and his estranged wife Claire Danes work out their differences while being menaced by some kind of conspiracy that may or may not involve people dropping dead of heartbreak, and snow falling in July. Even worse, Vinterberg forces Phoenix and Danes into mannequin-like exchanges as if attempting to make some kind of profound, symbolic statement about free will. But stripped of Vinterberg’s dazed focus and iconoclastic straightjacket, It’s All About Love could be a subtle, aching meditation on mankind’s future on par with Solaris or Children Of Men. Not that any sane director would think of touching it.
13. Semi-Pro (2008)
Many of the best sports comedies have been set in the minor leagues (or worse), where has-beens, never-weres, and terminal headcases compete in crappy venues and side games, trying not to squander the money they’re barely scraping together. Think Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, or the profane likes of Slapshot and The Bad News Bears. A comedy about the American Basketball Association—the ’70s league most remembered for its red-white-and-blue balls and spectacular Afros—seems like a natural. But 2008’s Semi-Pro came along at a time when its star, Will Ferrell, was set loose on sports of any stripe, from NASCAR racing (Talladega Nights) to figure skating (Blades Of Glory) with diminishing returns. Semi-Pro scores a few inspired laughs from D-league promotional gimmicks (like an ill-advised bear-wrestling night) and locker-room shenanigans, but it too often bows to Ferrell’s improvisational whims, which often have nothing to do with the subject at hand. It wouldn’t take much tweaking to turn a history of the ABA into a great comedy—all it needs is a little discipline.
14. The Invention Of Lying (2009)
The Invention Of Lying is two-thirds of a great movie. It begins with an ingenious, original premise—a man invents the concept of fabrication in a world without lying or impulse control, where everyone blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. It adds a ridiculously loaded cast: Ricky Gervais, who also co-wrote and directed, Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, and a slew of big-name cameos. For much of its duration, The Invention Of Lying is an eviscerating, daring, and refreshingly dark religious satire along the lines of The Life Of Brian, after Gervais’ character invents the notion of God to comfort his dying mom, and is hailed as a prophet for his ability to discern secret truths about the universe. Yet Gervais and his collaborators pull defeat out of the jaws of victory by giving over the film to a DOA romantic subplot in which he woos Jennifer Garner, a woman who obsesses about the DNA of her potential offspring with a fervor that would embarrass Hitler, and is tactless and obnoxious even by the lenient standards of the film’s alternate universe. Her character is ugly enough on the inside to sink a seemingly foolproof would-be comedy classic—and Gervais’ dogged, weary insistence on pursuing her anyway because she’s beautiful on the outside torpedoes much of the audience’s sympathy for him.
15. Date Night (2010)
Date Night doesn’t need a remake so much as a do-over. Keep Steve Carell and Tina Fey as harried suburban parents worried about the absence of romance in their lives. Keep the premise of them heading into Manhattan for a fancy dinner and having their evening disrupted by criminals, if only to give Carell and Fey an excuse to interact with lowlife James Franco and secret agent Mark Wahlberg, two of Date Night’s bright spots. But rewrite the script with the understanding that this is a comedy first and foremost, not an action film. The movie needs fewer car chases, gunfights, and crazy twists, and more of Carell and Fey under stress and dealing with their mutual disappointment as a middle-aged couple too tired and complacent for real passion. Even better: Let Carell and Fey write the damn thing. Their bright, honest comic sensibility is there in Date Night, but the movie keeps turning away from it to get back to the stupid plot.
16. Underworld (2003)
Vampires vs. werewolves should be an easy sell. It satisfies something primal in the nerd brain: fangs vs. claws, sophisticated evil vs. unchecked animal power. Plus there’s the endless question of what exactly happens when a vamp infects a lycanthrope, or vice versa. Given all the different ways it could’ve succeeded, Len Wiseman’s Underworld is a disappointment, paying lip service to the concept while managing to miss its appeal entirely. There are vampire clans and werewolf gangs, and they’re at war, but the combat isn’t supernaturally enhanced fisticuffs, it’s all about endless gun-battles in which thousands of bullets and hundreds of pounds of concrete chips are expended, to precious little effect. A remake could take the main conceit, maybe lighten up the whole “vampires-as-decadent-goths” angle and give us werewolves with some actual bite, and make some gold out of a whole lot of really boring straw. Kate Beckinsale can stick around, but only if they change her job title from “Death Dealer” to “Polite Irritant In Leather Pants.”
17. The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Director Terry Gilliam has a readily identifiable style and an unwillingness to compromise his artistic integrity, but no one ever said he was a particularly strong storyteller. His best films, like Brazil, Time Bandits, and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, have a meandering, “and then this happened” approach to pace. They’re more concerned with building intricate, exhaustive worlds than making sense of what happens within them. The Brothers Grimm is certainly inventive visually, with stylized forests, bizarre torture devices, and strange magicks. The narrative, though, is frustratingly flat, taking heroes Matt Damon and Heath Ledger (both in fine form) on a torturously circuitous route between a villainous Jonathan Pryce and a wicked queen. There’s potential in a story about the two famous fairy-tale tellers becoming entangled with some of the monsters and mysteries of their best-known work. Stick with the idea, and get somebody in the director’s chair who can work with the material instead of struggling to force their own stamp on it.
18. Lady In White (1988)
When a young boy is locked in a school cloakroom overnight, he sees the ghostly re-enactment of a murder, and nearly becomes the killer’s latest victim. The boy decides to discover the murderer’s identity himself, and all sorts of supernatural wonders ensue. Lady In White has a good story and a terrific hook, but writer-director Frank LaLoggia is never able to settle on a consistent tone, and he seesaws between eerie occult horror and overblown sentimentality. The result is a mishmash that never lives up to its potential, wasting a game cast (including a young Lukas Haas, Katherine Helmond, and Len Cariou) and some very effective imagery. Though it originated on the screen, Lady feels like a Stephen King adaptation, with its focus on small-town life and its insistence on painting every nostalgic memory in bright, blinding neon. A new version could keep the mystery, lose the awkwardness, and find some redemption for a forgotten cinematic mixed bag.
19. Nurse Betty (2000)
This curious little black comedy is a divisive item in the catalog of director Neil LaBute, already a pretty polarizing figure. It involves a good-natured Kansas woman (Renée Zellweger) trapped in a bad marriage to a sleazeball car dealer (Aaron Eckhart); when he’s murdered in a drug deal gone bad, she undergoes a trauma that leads her to believe her favorite soap opera is real. Pursued by the men who killed her husband, she flees to Hollywood to “reunite” with the actor she thinks is her true love. Some argue that LaBute made his first of many mistakes by working for the first time with a script he didn’t write; others think that was a good decision, and Nurse Betty was sunk by LaBute’s uneven direction and failure to understand the material. Whatever the case, while it gets off to a good start with some truly chilling scenes featuring hit men Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman, its tone goes completely off the rails in the middle half, and the film falls apart in the third act. Throughout, it can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be: a comic film noir, a well-meaning light drama, or a screwball comedy with dark undertones. On repeated viewings, it’s hard to shake the impression that the whole thing would benefit more from focusing on Rock and Freeman rather than on Zellweger, but there’s definitely the seeds of a great movie in it—just not one directed by Neil LaBute.
20. Phone Booth (2003)
Writer-director Larry Cohen has a long track record of crafting plots that dare viewers not to watch the films that accompany them, be it the killer babies of It’s Alive or the winged-serpent-living-in-Manhattan horror of Q. Cohen wrote the Phone Booth screenplay, and though he’s always been a workmanlike director, he almost certainly would have executed the film more compellingly than Joel Schumacher. Reviving a notion Cohen once tried to sell to Alfred Hitchcock, the film takes place in and around a single New York phone booth, where a morally dubious theatrical agent (Colin Farrell) is confined by a sniper and forced to answer for his transgressions after he answers an incoming call. Neat idea? Definitely. But Schumacher doesn’t have that much faith in it. He brings in his usual restless-camera histrionics, and lets everyone scream and shout as if fighting a bad phone connection.
21. Hancock (2008)
Peter Berg’s superhero movie Hancock isn’t bad, really, but surely any movie that casts Will Smith as a down-and-out, drunk-and-disorderly superman should have been better. Some early scenes in which PR expert Jason Bateman tries to burnish the image of the surly do-gooder almost make good on the conceit, and even the mid-film twist is kind of neat. What’s surprising is how quickly the film becomes—in spite of its premise, stars, unusual plot, and handheld camerawork—just another superhero movie, and not a particularly memorable one at that.
22. The Happening (2008)
While drowning in the wooden acting, stupid arc, and ridiculous “villain” of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, it’s easy to forget what a cool premise the movie actually has. The violent opening scenes—“Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie!!!” trumpeted the ads—are truly scary and even novel: Hordes of people simply start killing themselves, and nobody knows why. But when you answer that mystery with some nonsense about bees and a bad guy no one can see or fight (It’s the wind! Sort of!), things get silly in a hurry. Somebody needs to grab the idea of a mysterious illness that causes people to harm themselves, and come up with some sort of anti-zombie movie with a hero that’s at least somewhat connected to the real world. In other words, don’t hire Mark Wahlberg to play an educator.