‘Why did so many Hollywood stars sign up for the humiliation?’: When great casts yield great failures

‘Argylle’ is the latest star-studded film to fail miserably at the box office, a phenomenon that has produced too many examples in recent years, from ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ to ‘Cats’

The star-studded poster of ‘Argylle.’LILO/SIPA (LILO/SIPA / Cordon Press)
Eva Güimil

Argylle has once again proven the obvious: a great cast does not guarantee a good product. The adaptation of the novel that Taylor Swift did not write — the detective work carried out by her fan base to “reveal” that the star of the Eras Tour was in fact the woman behind the pseudonym Ellie Conway has been one of the most absurd news of the season — was the first big failure of 2024, despite boasting a stellar cast that includes Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Henry Cavill, John Cena, Dua Lipa, Samuel L. Jackson and Bryan Cranston and being led by Matthew Vaughn, creator of the successful Kingsman franchise.

The cast was, perhaps, one of the causes of the disaster — or, rather, the cast that only appeared in the trailer. The promotional material implied that Argylle was an action movie starring Cavill and Cena; those who went to the theater, however, found out that their roles were little more than cameos and the film actually revolved around the writer played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Once word of mouth did its job, the film was doomed. The second week it lost almost 70% of viewers. With a budget of more than $200 million, it grossed only $35 million in its first weekend, which sends it straight to the list of films whose flashy casts raised high expectations that were not met.

Laurie Davidson, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Hudson, Sir Ian McKellen
Laurie Davidson, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Hudson, Sir Ian McKellen, Francesca Hayward, Jason Derulo and Robbie Fairchild at the London premiere of ‘Cats.’Matt Crossick (PA Wire/PA Images / Cordon Press)

Cats (2019)

Cast: Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift

The stage version of Cats was not an easy project to get off the ground. First, Andrew Lloyd Webber had to convince the widow of the poet TS Elliot to let him adapt the book of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a tough nut to crack that had already rejected Disney. Then, when he got the rights, the investors pulled out, puzzled by the concept. And when everything finally seemed ready, the lead actress, Judi Dench, broke her Achilles heel and had to be replaced a few days before the premiere. Still, all doubts were dispelled as soon as the curtain rose. Forty years later, Cats is one of the five most successful musicals of all time, a reputation that boosted the project directed by Tom Hooper, responsible for The King’s Speech, which also included Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Judi Dench, as well as Taylor Swift, who wrote the main song.

The success of musicals like Chicago and Mamma Mia also helped pave the way for the movie version of Cats. However, neither the inmates of the Cook County jail nor the inhabitants of the ABBA universe faced an enemy as cruel as bad CGI. As soon as the first images were leaked, the criticism was brutal. Cats — actual cats — are the stars of modern life, both online and offline. Those humanoid felines, on the other hand, looked more like they belonged in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and apparently no one wants to see cats with human breasts (and for those who do, there is probably a PornHub category already). The public turned its back on it and the critics destroyed it — albeit with a certain benevolence. “It’s by no means a good movie [...] but I don’t want to outright hate it. It’s an ugly stray who smells bad and should not be invited into your home, certainly. And yet it is its own kind of living creature, worthy of at least some basic compassion,” wrote Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson.

Susan Downey, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Holland
Susan Downey, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Holland and Emma Thompson at the London premiere of ‘Dolittle.’Lia Toby (PA Wire/PA Images / Cordon Press)

Dolittle (2020)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen and Jim Broadbent (with the voices of Emma Thompson, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Tom Holland, Rami Malek and Octavia Spencer).

It was surprising that Robert Downey Jr.’s first major work after his time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a big-screen adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle book series, especially since none of the previous attempts to do it, neither Richard Fleischer’s version with Rex Harrison, nor Betty Thomas’ one, with Eddie Murphy, had been a particularly big success. Maybe they thought that the captivating charm of Downey Jr., who had proved to be capable of resurrecting over and over to become the highest paid actor in Hollywood and the most charismatic of The Avengers while still being appreciated by the critics thanks to small projects like The Judge, would be enough to entice the public. And just in case his name was not enough, they brought a plethora of stars to voice the talking animals, including Tom Holland, Selena Gomez, Ralph Fiennes and Rami Malek.

However, even though they brought together many interesting figures, they forgot about a crucial element: a good screenplay. That succession of jokes about feces and farts without an apparent common thread is hard to fathom. Perhaps part of the disaster is due to its director, thriller expert Stephen Gaghan, screenwriter of Traffic and director of Syriana, not being the most suitable person to be at the helm of a children’s product. In the end, Jonathan Liebesman, responsible for Wrath of the Titans, had to be called to film some extra material for three more weeks, which makes it impossible to point fingers. The movie got six Razzie nominations, two of them for Downey Jr.: one for worst actor and another for worst screen combo — him and... his Welsh accent.

Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis
Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis in a promotional image for ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities.’ Archive Photos (Getty Images)

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Cast: Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman and Kim Catrall.

Three talented, popular and utterly likeable stars, in a classic by the god of journalism Tom Wolfe, with a subject as fascinating as the greed of Wall Street in the 1980s and the director of masterpieces such as Carrie or The Untouchables. The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Brian de Palma, simply could not fail. And yet, it collapsed like a luxurious house of cards.

Things started to go downhill when it was pointed out that there were not enough African-American characters (the #OscarSoWhite movement was but the culmination of a situation that had been brewing for decades). Small cosmetic changes began to be made, but they did not save the filming from being very poorly received in the Bronx. Other changes were not merely cosmetic, and they were the basis of the film’s failure. Not all the characters in Wolfe’s novel were pleasant people, but Warner Bros. decided that no one wanted to see Tom Hanks being a cynic and turned him into the kind of character people were used to seeing him play, and all the vitriol of the original work was transformed into honey.

Bruce Willis, who had just triumphed in Die Hard, was also not the best option to play a nobody with aspirations. He caused a series of problems, too, such as arguing with De Palma, teaching his colleagues how to act and hanging around the set with an assistant who constantly covered his balding head with makeup. Melanie Griffith, meanwhile, contributed to the chaos by showing up halfway through the shoot with a set of new breast prostheses that put those responsible for the continuity of the film in trouble.

A cast can be excellent and still not be adequate, as all the American, Irish and Spanish actors who played Chileans in The House of the Spirits know well. And when the movie is based on a best-seller that everybody has read, it is better not to stray too far from the original material; those who went to see the adaptation of Isabel Allende’s book know that, too. However, no one on the set of The Bonfire of the Vanities was aware that what they were making was not a masterpiece until test screenings showed that audiences did not like it, which led to even more changes that further undermined the original. Up to that point, de Palma was so convinced of the good work he was doing that he gave full access to critic Julie Salamon to document the entire process in a book that was intended to be a guide on how to create a great film, but ended up becoming The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige, Tom Cruise, Julianne Hough
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige, Tom Cruise and Julianne Hough at the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Rock of Ages.’Lester Cohen (WireImage)

Rock of Ages (2012)

Cast: Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bryan Cranston. Russell Brand, Diego Boneta and Malin Åkerman.

We tend to believe that the man who saved Hollywood (according to Spielberg) counts his films by box office hits, but that might be because we have erased from our memory disasters like Rock of Ages, where Cruise does things as unprecedented as singing, and does not do the things people are used to seeing him do, like running. Rock of Ages is a musical that garnered many awards and spectators in the theater, but it is by no means a must-see for those who visit New York. Outside the United States, Cruise was the movie’s main attraction. Not that he is to blame for the flop: he does a good job as Stacee Jaxx, an unbearable, drunk singer in decline reminiscent of Axl Rose, a very different role from those who have made him one of the biggest stars of recent decades. The soundtrack includes such recognizable hits as More Than Words and Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, an anthem so powerful that it was even able to bolster Glee’s shakiest moments, but everything that was wild and nostalgic faded away in the translation to the screen, and the whole thing was little more than a bunch of people disguised as rock stars making the viewers feel sorry for them, mainly because no one of the cast knew how to sing. “Really, it’s like a longer, louder version of Glee or American Idol, but with actors who can’t sing rather than singers who can’t act,” wrote the critic Candice Frederick. By trying to create an attraction for all audiences, they ended up attracting no one.

Rami Malek, Andrea Riseborough, David O. Russell, Margot Robbie, Christian Bale
Rami Malek, Andrea Riseborough, David O. Russell, Margot Robbie and Christian Bale at the London premiere of ‘Amsterdam.’Jeff Spicer (Jeff spicer/Getty Images)

Amsterdam (2022)

Cast: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro, Anya Taylor-Joy, Taylor Swift and Michael Shannon.

After reading the list of names above this paragraph, many people might be wondering, “When did this happen?” Well, it did, and not too long ago, but it mostly went unnoticed (although it can be seen on Max). The most promising cast in recent years had the perplexing David O. Russell at the helm, a man who is capable of the best (American Hustle) and the worst (some people still have not recovered from I Heart Huckabees). This time, the balance tipped towards the latter.

The plot of Amsterdam is ambitious, like everything Russell does: it is part romance, part political thriller, part suspense, and it even includes a little-known nugget of American history: the time in which the Nazis came close to putting a candidate in the White House (and no, we are not talking about Trump). However, at some point in the process something went wrong and the poor initial box office doomed it. What was supposed to be a steamroller during the awards season saw its premiere postponed to finally be received with an indifference that perhaps it did not deserve.

John Goodman, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Grant Heslow, George Clooney, Harry Ettlinger, Robert Edsel
John Goodman, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Grant Heslow, George Clooney, Harry Ettlinger and Robert Edsel at the Berlin premiere of ‘The Monuments Men.’Ian Gavan (Getty Images)

The Monument’s Men (2014)

Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville.

George Clooney’s fifth film as a director started in all the lists of the most anticipated films of 2013, only to end up in the list of the biggest disappointments. In addition to the performances of famous and talented stars, it had a plot reminiscent of a cross between Indiana Jones and Ocean’s Eleven: the (true) story of a command made up of seven historians in charge of rescuing works of art from the clutches of the Nazis.

The premise promised action and the casting ensured a veneer of quality, but all the moviegoers got was layers and layers of boredom. Clooney, who served as director, screenwriter and actor, wanted to achieve a balance between action and adventure with a classic feel, but what he ended up creating was an outdated mishmash that satisfied no one and in which it is not the script, but Alexander Desplat’s omnipresent music, what lets you know when you should laugh, get excited or feel tension. The audience did not offer its unconditional support just because the protagonists (Clooney, Blanchett and Damon) were three of the biggest stars in the cinematic firmament, and the critics did not give their approval. The Times described it as disappointing. If it was not treated worse, it was because no one really cared.

Movie 43
The poster for ‘Movie 43’ boasting its cast: Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Anna Faris, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Emma Stone, Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, Richard Gere and Halle Berry. Everett Collection / Everett Collection / Cordon Press

Movie 43 (2013)

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, Richard Gere, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry, Dennis Quaid, Uma Thurman, Naomi Watts, Chris Pratt, Liev Schreiber, Gerard Butler, Anna Faris, Chloë Moretz and Jason Sudeikis.

“Why did so many Hollywood stars sign up for the humiliation?” asked The Guardian after the premiere of Movie 43. That was not the harshest thing that was written about one of the films with the most stars per frame in the history of cinema. And these are not some has-beens in search of one last big check, like those in the disaster movies of the 1970s, either, but A-listers at the top of their game. The critics, who had to pay to see it like everybody else, as there were no prior showings, tore into Peter Farrelly’s film. The Toronto Star described it as the “biggest waste of talent in cinema history,” delving into the drama of seeing all of Hollywood making jokes about pee, poop and menstruation in a succession of unconnected gags. “Was someone holding Kate Winslet’s children hostage?” Vulture pondered. “Threatening to release compromising pictures of Emma Stone? Did Richard Gere or Hugh Jackman have gambling debts?” There are various arguments to explain why Oscar-winning stars were making jokes about testicles. In some cases it was friendship: a film that united fourteen sketches had so many writers, directors and producers that everyone knew someone they could ask for a favor. In others, the belief that making a film closer to an episode of Jackass than to a contender for the Golden Bear would attract the type of young audience that had turned its back on cinema. And in other cases, it was probably a matter of money.

Although it seems that all of Hollywood appears in the film, there were stars like George Clooney and Colin Farrell who refused to participate. What no one can claim is ignorance: at least until the sleep-inducing Green Book, the surname Farrelly was synonymous with semen and testicles jokes and the gross, excessive humor that defines all the gags in Movie 43, most of them much less fortunate than the producer’s other works, such as There’s Something About Mary or Stuck on You.

However, it was not all bad reviews. Some were able to find beauty in chaos: “It’s rare to see a piece of shit that actually looks and sounds like a piece of shit,” New York Magazine wrote. “It’s kind of exciting!”

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