Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When Great Scenes Happen To Bad Movies

1. Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Scene: Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a motherfucking shark

There's a point in Samuel L. Jackson's big monologues, in virtually any of his films, when the volume and intensity suddenly increase, and the actor enters full-on screaming-at-the-top-of-his-lungs apocalyptic fury. At precisely that moment in Deep Blue Sea, when Jackson hits the line, "Nature can be lethal, but it doesn't hold a candle to man!", a shark leaps out of the murky abyss and snaps Jackson in half like a number-two pencil, in one of the all-time great gotcha shocks. Upon repeat viewing, said super-smart underwater assassin bears an unfortunate resemblance to the cartoon shark Jabberjaw, but it's still a kick-ass moment in an otherwise rote Jaws knockoff whose effectiveness is undermined by the generous screen time it affords the low-wattage comedy stylings of LL Cool J and his sassy parrot sidekick.


2. The Country Bears (2002)

Scene: Christopher Walken practices his evil

A stray Christopher Walken scene can improve almost any movie, good or bad, from Pulp Fiction to Gigli: Walken has made a career out of creepily memorable, iconic performances that linger in the brain (and the shuddering nerves) long after the framing material is forgotten. But Walken cameos don't get much better than his central scene in Disney's numbingly bad The Country Bears. As an evil developer out to destroy the old-timey music venue Country Bear Hall, Walken shows up at intervals to threaten the animatronic-suited Country Bears in standard baddie form. But in a deliriously bizarre mid-film moment, he dances around his office alone in red boxers and bunny slippers, playing with his own face, cackling, and dropping an immense remote-controlled weight on balsa-wood models of Country Bear Hall in order to practice the none-too-shocked line "Oh no! Country Bear Hall has been crushed!"

3. Walk On The Wild Side (1962)

Scene: The credits

Blessed with an uncanny ability to boil a film's tone and themes down to a few basic elements, Saul Bass designed credits sequences that were often as memorable as the attached films. Composers employ many of the same skills, and few did it better than Elmer Bernstein. Together, they created a credits sequence for Walk On The Wild Side that can (and should) stand apart from the rest of the film. As Bernstein's jazzy theme builds, a black cat slinks across back alleys, walking along fences and through drainage pipes. Just as the music begins to boil over, it encounters a rival, and fur flies. The black cat stalks away in victory to a Bernstein decrescendo. The forgettable Edward Dmytryk-directed Nelson Algren adaptation that follows–filled with the none-too-powerful charms of Capucine, Barbara Stanwyck as an unconvincing lesbian pimp, and plenty of well-scrubbed sleaze–never escapes its shadow.

4. Death To Smoochy (2002)

Scene: Smoochy the Rhino sings "My Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Just Adjusting"

Long after the hated purple dinosaur had been thoroughly worked over in talk-show monologues, director Danny DeVito waved a tire iron at the Barney craze with his overdetermined satire Death To Smoochy. But just when the ice-cream headache induced by DeVito's manic visual style and Robin Williams' profane shtick really starts to throb, along comes Smoochy (Edward Norton) with an inspired acoustic number about putting up with a bitter, unemployed stepfather called Stan. "He slams the door, he stomps his feet / He sends me to bed with zilch to eat / But my stepdad's not mean, he's just adjusting." Hey kids, what are the magic numbers? "Nine! One! One!"


5. Duets (2000)

Scene: Paul Giamatti sings!

Hard to believe that a Robert Altman-lite road movie about the amateur karaoke circuit ever scaled the studio firewall, but one transcendent scene in Duets suggests that a great karaoke movie isn't out of the question. Playing one of his patented middle-aged schlubs–in this case, a suburban family man who leaves home after a nervous breakdown–Giamatti gets coaxed to the stage at a karaoke bar for a rendition of Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me." Reluctant at first, Giamatti slowly loses himself in the song and starts belting it out as if he were in the shower, shaking off any traces of self-consciousness. For a touching few minutes, his problems (and the movie's) momentarily disappear.


6. Like Mike (2002)

Scene: Crispin Glover terrorizes an orphan

Sometimes, the strangest actors do their most subversive work in children's films, where their demented quirks stand in sharp relief to the family-friendly wholesomeness. (See also: Christopher Walken in The Country Bears, above.) As the prototypically cruel head of a orphanage, Glover forgets he's in an overlong Nike commercial and sets about terrorizing kids in his inimitably peculiar style. In the most twisted scene, Glover tries to squeeze information out of young Jonathan Lipnicki (the bespectacled moppet from Jerry Maguire) by holding a lighter under the sole remaining picture of his long-lost mother.


7. What About Bob? (1991)

Scene: Bill Murray appears on Good Morning, America

Few comedic actors are more adept at redeeming dire projects than Bill Murray, but he really had his work cut out for him in What About Bob?, in which a joke-killing Richard Dreyfuss fumes like a whistling teakettle. Playing an intensely phobic weirdo who drives his new therapist (Dreyfuss) insane, Murray squeezes a few scattered laughs from his offbeat improvisation, especially in a scene where he appears live with Dreyfuss on Good Morning, America. As the high-strung Dreyfuss fumbles in promoting his book Baby Steps, Murray enthusiastically endorses it as "mashed potatoes and gravy" and compares the doctor to great humanitarians like Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa. And he's only been a patient for three or four days! That's the miracle of Baby Steps.


8. The Village (2004)

Scene: Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Howard share a quiet moment on the porch

For all his shortcomings as a screenwriter and gimmick maestro–both major detriments to The Village–M. Night Shyamalan's gifts as a visual storyteller are hard to deny. Case in point: A sweet exchange that's so hauntingly beautiful, clunky lines like "I find dancing very agreeable" get swallowed in the hushed atmosphere. Set in the hours following an attack on the titular village, the scene is shot with the actors in profile as an evening fog rolls into the fields in front of them. Looking like a clip from a classic movie by Jacques Tourneur (I Walked With A Zombie), the sequence subtly underlines Phoenix and Howard's resilience and bravery through the interplay between the romance in the foreground and the terrifying unknown in the background.


9. The Devil's Advocate (1997)

Scene: Unmasked as Satan incarnate, Al Pacino philosophizes

The culmination of his "hoo-ahh" period, in which every performance seemed to call for bulging eyes and wild gesticulation, The Devil's Advocate gave Pacino the opportunity to cut loose like he hadn't since he inhaled that mountain of coke in Scarface. In the bravura finale to this lame piece of supernatural/metaphysical hokum, Pacino builds up a nice head of steam and keeps rolling: First, he taunts attorney Keanu Reeves by confessing the nasty things he did to Reeves' wife ("On a scale of one to 10, 10 being the most depraved act of sexual theater known to man…"), then he turns his attentions to the great battle between good and evil. Calling himself "the last humanist" ("I'm a fan of man!"), Pacino licks his lips, flares his nostrils, and dismisses God as a voyeur, a sadist, and, most memorable of all, "an absentee landlord!"


10. Run Ronnie Run (2002)

Scene: Ronnie Dobbs: The Musical

For the most part, Run Ronnie Run is a maddening exercise in botched opportunities, self-indulgent celebrity cameos, and arbitrary subplots. But one scene illustrates just how brilliant a Mr. Show movie could and should be: Mandy Patinkin–rehearsing the main part in a musical based on the life of David Cross' oft-arrested hillbilly shitkicker–offers an epic take on the title character's theme song, beautifully playing up the mock-nobility of his persecution while brilliantly spoofing every musical in which the wretched of the earth express themselves with crystal-clear, Juilliard-trained pronunciation and delicate melodies. Clad in overalls and a straw hat for the full Li'l Abner effect, Patinkin croons the song with the conviction and intensity of a veteran trouper debuting a new Gershwin number on opening night. Never has Dobbs' catchphrase "Y'all are brutalizing me" seemed so melancholy, or so rife with noble indignation.


11. Superman III (1983)

Scene: Pratfalls in Metropolis

Borrowing tricks from Rube Goldberg, Buster Keaton, and his own Beatles comedies, director Richard Lester kicks off the third Superman film (the follow-up to his great Superman II) with a comic setpiece in which a hot-dog cart, a head-turning blonde in a tight dress, a misplaced seeing-eye dog, and a burning wind-up toy all unwittingly conspire to create chaos in the streets of Metropolis. Eventually, Superman sweeps in to save the day, but his arrival barely interrupts five minutes of sustained slapstick comedy that confirm Lester's gifts. So where'd Lester disappear to for the rest of the film, which is a half-assed mix of action, comedy, and out-of-place Richard Pryor routines?


12. Absolute Power (1996)

Scene: Secret chambers, forbidden desires

Playing a taciturn master thief, Clint Eastwood gets more than he expected when he breaks into a sprawling mansion. Trapped in a secret room filled with loot, he's interrupted by the arrival of a drunken couple, and he watches with mounting distress (or is that excitement?) as their lovemaking goes from rough to rougher to homicidal. More than most great directors, Eastwood succeeds or fails in direct relation to the quality of the scripts handed to him. That may explain why this bravura stretch, with its near-wordless commentary on the voyeurism of movie-going itself, looks like an oasis in the middle of a phoned-in William Goldman script that attempts to tap into the same anti-Clinton hysteria that fueled Murder At 1600.


13. The Swinger (1966)

Scene: Dance of the bohemians

The Swinger is a not-as-sexy-as-it-wants-to-be mid-'60s sex comedy, with Ann-Margret as a struggling writer pretending to be a libertine to impress girlie-magazine editor Tony Franciosa. It's excruciatingly silly most of the time, but it contains a handful of stunning moments, including an opening montage of Los Angeles sleaze parlors that's both a revealing document of the 1966 smut business and a bait-and-switch for the movie to come. In The Swinger's liveliest scene, Ann-Margret tours her beachside beatnik pad, traveling from room to room by doing a vigorous frug, surrounded by similarly turtleneck-and-capri-pants-attired free spirits. Welcome to L.A., man.


14. The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)

Scene: The opening credits

A drunken Bruce Willis exits a car in the basement of a luxury hotel and gets ferried by golf cart to a service entrance, where a fawning handler escorts him through the food-service area to a freight elevator filled with salmon and a sexy student. Willis paws at the student with one hand and scoops at the salmon with the other before spilling out into a lobby where another fawning handler helps him change into a fresh tuxedo to meet the press. All this in one unbroken take. Director Brian De Palma looks to be fully in charge–his broad comic sensibility and visual mastery are in perfect sync. Then the movie starts.


15. Staying Alive (1983)

Scene: Travolta struts

"You know what I want to do?" John Travolta asks late in the otherwise misbegotten, Sylvester Stallone-directed Staying Alive. He answers himself exuberantly, with a single word: "Strut!" Still basking in the heady afterglow of his big Broadway triumph, Travolta then kicks open the door separating him from the nightlife and begins strutting joyfully down the street to the conspiratorial accompaniment of the Bee Gees' fascistically catchy title song. Grinning broadly, Travolta turns his gleeful stomp down Broadway into a victory lap, a master class in the wonderfully gratuitous deployment of movie-star charisma. For its last few moments, at least, Staying Alive stops writhing in leaden disco camp and finally resembles a worthy sequel to Saturday Night Fever. Travolta's shit-eating grin says it all: Why just walk when you can strut?