The 1933 classic Duck Soup is one of the Marx Brothers most beloved films, and easily my personal favorite. Part of this is attributable to the sly political satire, part of it to iconic bits such as the sequence where Harpo is disguised as Groucho and matches the other's every movement in perfect synchronization in order to pass himself off as a mirror. But truth be told, perhaps the biggest reason I have revisited this movie more times than any other of the brothers comedies is the total absence of an intrusive and syrupy romantic subplot. These studio imposed staples of most of the comedy team's films were the reason Zeppo left the act, as he was tired of being stuck in them while the others got to go for the laughs, and they became even more painful to sit through once Zeppo was gone and the labored interludes were passed on to B grade "up and coming" players that Paramount Pictures was trying (and perpetually failing) to groom for stardom.
Subplots can be a an effective tool when used properly; they can ad levity to an intensely serious film (the romance between Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles in The Searchers), unexpected dramatic depth to a comedy (Charles Durning, as Jessica Lange's widowed father, becoming an unplanned victim of Dustin Hoffman's schemes in Tootsie) and an extra level of heart to a family film (the friendship between Kris Kringle and Alfred the janitor in Miracle On 34th Street.). But when they are ill conceived or poorly executed, they can be the bane of an otherwise good film, or standout as the most wretched part of a bad one.
Following are my choices for the worst subplots in the past 27 years of Hollywood movie making. It's important to note that this not merely a list of bad films. What makes some of these subplots so egregious is that in many cases they mar otherwise solid movies.
1. BRAVEHEART (1995)
Historically speaking, the movie bares almost no resemblance to the truth: the real Wallace was born to aristocracy and was most likely already a Knight by the the time the battle of Stirling took place; the wearing of kilts did not start until about 400 years after the movie takes place; not only is it a falsehood that Edward I instituted the practice of Primae Noctis (allowing English Lords and other nobles to demand sexual intercourse with any bride of common birth on the night of the wedding), but historians agree that the practice itself is almost certainly an urban legend or myth, as no historical evidence exists of it ever being practiced in real life; Wallace was never betrayed by Robert The Bruce; the Battle of Bannockburn was not a spontaneous, unexpected charge (The Bruce had in fact been leading armies in battle for 8 years prior). But the fact is, at least on some level all of these elements play well in the movie. But the affair between Wallace and Isabella of France (Sophie Marceau) is not only ridiculous on a historical level, it's detrimental to the film.
In the film, Isabella is a young bride married to Prince Edward II as a power play by his royal father to seize control of France. She is dismally unhappy in the marriage, and her husband is portrayed as a pasty, prancing, openly gay man who parades around the palace with a boyfriend who bares an astonishing resemblance to Donny Osmond. When she is sent as an envoy to meet with Wallace, she is instantly enamoured by this smoldering volcano of virile manhood, and assists him until the two finally meet up for a night of passion, at which point she becomes pregnant with Wallace's child. Now, in reality, Isabella was 3 years old and living in France at the time of the battle of Falkirk, did not marry Edward II until he was already king, and Edward III was not born until 7 years after Wallace died. But lets put all that aside for a moment: even if you can forgive the "dramatic license" taken, the fact is, this subplot does nothing at all for the film Whenever we cut away to Isabella the film degenerates into a cheap Harlequin romance. Wallace, whom the film portrays as an "Uncompromising man" (another way of saying "larger than life superhero not subject o any of the flaws of mere mortals") is motivated entirely by his undying love for his murdered wife, Murron, and believes that she looks down on him from heaven. And yet we are supposed to admire him just as much after he takes time out to get jiggy with the hot young Queen (hoping that Murron's view of him from heaven is obscured by cloud cover that night.). Everything we know about the character makes this affair an act of infidelity, and the justification that it was all part of a master plan to get his progeny on the throne hardly makes any sense nor does it make his actions sympathetic. Wallace tells Isabella that he "sees his wife's strength in her," yet there is nothing strong about her. She's a spoiled brat who's seen too many Disney movies and seems far more motivated by disappointment over the fact that her Prince Charming is a "weakling" than the fact that her new country is an evil empire, and her efforts to undermine this totalitarian regime seem to be motivated entirely by her need to get laid by a real manly man. There is no love or believable romance between the two, and on top of Isabella being an incredibly sexist characterization, her husband's homosexuality is at best treated as an illness that makes him unfit to rule and incapable of understanding love, and at worst, a qualifier that makes a violent murder a moment of comic relief.
Braveheart would lose nothing without this intrusive story, apart from about 25 minutes of its epic run time.
2. SPIDER-MAN 3
Peter Parker parts his hair on the evil side.
Peter Parker gets covered by space tar, which causes him to rebel against his "nice guy" persona, giving in to his inner bastard. All of this is a set up to introduce Venom, the dark Spider-Man, into a movie that is already overcrowded with too many characters, but as much as I would love to blame this one all on the studio (as would director Sam Raimi), the execution is even worse than the idea, and more than any other factor this excruciatingly bad subplot managed to kill one of the most financially successful franchises of the past decade.
The usually capable Tobey Maguire is laughable in the "bad boy" scenes, and when he starts strutting down the street as if he can hear his own theme music, audiences everywhere groaned. The least of the problems with this whole interlude is that it's really just a lame rehash of the "red Kryptonite" Superman in Superman III, which is hardly the comic book based film you want to be emulating in the first place.
3. HEAVEN IS FOR REAL (2014)
One picture is worth a thousand lies.
Braveheart writer turned director Randall Wallace tells the supposedly true story of Colton Burpo, the four-year old son of Nebraska Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear.). Colton claims to have visited heaven while in the hospital for emergency surgery. He talks about looking down and seeing his father in the hospital chapel, yelling at God while his mother sat in the waiting room calling everyone in town asking them to pray. He describes meeting Jesus, a blue eyed, light brown haired American riding a white horse, alongside a faithful Indian companion wearing white grease paint ant a dead bird on his head (I may have embellished part of that just a little.). Meanwhile, the movie is framed around a young girl painting a picture of the great white King of the Jews, who bares an astonishing resemblance to '80's rock star Kenny Loggins. At the end of the film, the girl, Akiane Kramarik, who lives is Lithuiana with her parents, is featured on television. She claims to have seen Jesus in visions and been divinely inspired to paint him. Colton, seeing only part of the story, points to the painting and says "That's him." Insert Twilight Zone theme here. She lives on the other side of the world, but she painted the very same Jesus that Colton saw, down to the last Anglo-Saxon detail (stop me if I'm beating that point into the ground.).
This is all fine and dandy, but the real life Kramarik was born to Lithuanian parents in Mt. Morris, Illinois, and while she does indeed say that she has receinved visions, the fact is that her Jesus painting used a local carpenter as a model. She saw the man ad, like Max Bialistock in The Producers, declared "That's our Hitler!" and talked him into modelling for the painting. And while Colton Burpo and Akiane Kramarik have appeared together on TV as children who claim to had brushes with the divine, at no point did Colton identify the man in the painting as the Jesus he saw.
4. FREQUENCY (2000)
A killer twist on the Father/Son feel good movie.
Just because Field of Dreams and The Silence of the Lambs were both good movies does not mean they should be combined into one.
In New York City during October 1999, John Sullivan (Jim Caviezal), a 36-year-old homicide detective, is still haunted by the death of his fireman father Frank (Dennis Quaid). Still living in the same house where he grew up, he discovers his father's ham radio and begins transmitting.. Because of highly localized electro-temporal spatial effects caused by unusual aurora borealis activity, John somehow makes contact with his father exactly 30 years in the past on the day before his death in a warehouse fire. Despite being the silliest scientific explanation this side of Mel Gibson developing the ability to hear women's thoughts after he drops a hair dryer in the bathtub in What Women Want, this plot actually plays quite well, in no small part due to the likable performances of the leads.
The movie veers wildly from heartwarming family drama to grisly murder mystery, and in the end it seems as if writer Toby Emmerich had ideas for two separate movies and decide that he could smoothly combine them into one. After our heroes foil the vicious killer and John's parents are both back from the dead, we cut straight from the scene of near multiple murders to a schmaltzy, slow motion baseball montage in a park, and soon after top psychiatrists diagnosed the movie with a severe case of schizophrenia.
5. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004)
Who let the wolves out?
Roland Emmerich's global warming on fast forward epic is an incredibly silly guilty pleasure. It is by no means a good film, but it is a pretty fun one, featuring likable lead performances by Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaall, and top notch visual effects. It's certainly a big step up from the dreadful Godzilla, and it's more in step with Emmerich's sensibilities than the widely uneven The Patriot.
But the director's apparent obsession with the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, showcased in the aforementioned films by the baby Godzillas and Jason Isaacs, reaches its silliest level yet when Gyllenhaal and his friends try to find Penicillin on board a Russian cargo ship that drifted inland (into New York City), and run into a pack of arctic wolves that escaped from the Central Park Zoo. Really? As if the world freezing over and cataclysmic destruction weren't peril enough? Wolves? On a Russian cargo ship? In NEW YORK???
Audiences laughed out loud at the stupidity of this tacked on sequence that was virtually howling to be left on the cutting room floor.
6. ANONYMOUS (2012)
I have had enough of this motherf**king Earl and his motherf**king plays.
What if Shakespeare didn't write his own plays? What if they were written by Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford? What if he wrote Henry V and Richard the III as part of an elaborate plan to incite revolution? What if he'd written A Midsummer Night's Dream at the age of nine (despite the fact that one of the major arguments that the movie uses to support their conclusion that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays is his lack of secondary education)?
I'm not buying any of this, Anonymous, but I'm trying to go with you so far, purely as an entertaining "what if?" story. But the point where you completely lose me is the teen Earl's seemingly irrelevant affair with Queen Elizabeth (who is portrayed as the most sexually active virgin this side of Wasilla, Alaska) turns out to be the inspiration for Hamlet's supposed oedipal complex, despite the fact that he does not learn that the Queen that he slept with was actually his mother until many years after writing Hamlet.
Literally the only interesting part of this who muddled subplot was the duel casting of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, mother and daughter in real life, as the Queen, at different points in time. For someone who specializes in destroying the world in such films Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, it still took trying to pass this drivel off as an intelligent, thoughtful drama for director Roland Emmerich to create his grandest on screen disaster.
7. LIFE AS A HOUSE (2001)
Mommy always wanted a boy.
Liberated from a job he hated and funded by his severance package, George decides the time has come to demolish the ramshackle home left to him by his father and replace and replace it with a bigger, better, more blatantly metaphorical structure. He decides to enlist the aid of his son, angst-ridden and self loathing Sam (Hayden Christensen), a rebellious, pill popping, glue sniffing teenager with blue hair and a plethora of piercings. As time passes, George slowly reconnects with Sam, whose bad attitude and tendency toward self pity start to subside. This might be due to his new found closeness to his father, or it might just possibly have something to do with the fact that the next door neighbor, Coleen (Mary Steenburgen) allows Sam to use her shower instead of the makeshift one George has built outside, and literally every day when Sam uses the shower, Coleen's smoking hot teenage daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone) climbs in their with him . . . nah. it's all about Dad.
As Alyssa and Sam start to spend more time together, Alyssa's boyfriend (Ian Somerhalder of Whatever That Show Is I'm Supposed To Care About) starts to feel a strain on their relationship (you can't please some people) and Coleen, ever the hospitable hostess, starts sleeping with him, which is completely relevant to the story of a man dying of cancer and reconnecting with his family and not the least bit forced and lurid. As the affair escalates, Coleen gets impatient one day when her new boy toy is late due to trying to avoid being seen by Alyssa. George calls the house looking for Sam, and naturally. just as anyone would in real life, Coleen answers the phone "What are you doing? You are driving me crazy making me wait like this, I want you in my bed right now!"only to discover she is talking to the wrong person. Again, all of this absolutely essential to the story and we could not possibly appreciate the contrast between George's rapid physical deterioration and his spiritual rebirth without it.
Life As A House could not be more heavy handed, contrived and obvious in is metaphors, but when it works, it does so quite well in spite of itself, simply because we genuinely care about George and Sam, and Kline and Christensen light up the screen whenever they are together. It's either one of the worst good movies I've ever seen or one of the least successful attempts ever to make a completely worthless exploitation movie.
When you want something, take it.
I don't mean to pick on Randall Wallace, but he is kind of the master of the bungled and superfluous subplot. In his directorial debut, he puts the "Dumb Ass" in "Dumas" with a love triangle King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio in the most awkward performance of his career) that seem to be perfectly timed to come along and bring the movie to a grinding halt every time it seems to be on the verge of actually working.
Just before the young soldier Raoul (son of Athos, the famed musketeer) can propose, the king's eyes fall on Christine. He arranges for Raoul to be returned to combat, where he is killed by the Dutch cannons while leading ground troops in an attack en-masse.
In the wake of Raoul's death, Louis invites Christine to the palace where she sleeps with him, grateful for the medical assistance his doctors have given to her mother and sister (you gotta do what you gotta do when you fall into the insurance gap.).
King Louis's dastardly plans just keep going, although he never does learn the secret of "man's red fire." Christine receives a letter from Raoul, predicting his death and saying that he forgives her for becoming the king's mistress. Whilst in bed with Louis, Christine admits that she still loves Raoul and that she is not in love with him. Enraged, Louis forsakes Christine. She eventually commits suicide when she realizes what that she has been a pawn and betrayed her husband to be, and the audiences breathes a sigh of relief that this part of the story is finally over and we can get back to the mediocre swordplay.
Send In The Clones.
Every successful filmmaker has their moments when they stumble or even fall: Spielberg had 1941. Scorsese had New York, New York. Coppola had One From The Heart. Shyamalan had The Village. And Lady In The Water. And The Happening. And The Last Airbender. And After Earth.
And Christopher Nolan had The Prestige.
Magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is sentenced to death for the murder of rival Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) by drowning him in a water tank during Angier's performance. Both began their careers as shills for "Milton the Magician." But when Angier's wife Julia drowns in a tank during a water escape performance, Angier blames Borden, who cannot recall if he tied her with an experimental knot. The two go on to lead separate careers. Borden becomes "The Professor" and Angier becomes "The Great Danton." The majority of he movie is dedicated to these two petty, arrogant men trying to be as barastardacious as possible to each other, unless there is no such word
(Angier sabotages Borden's bullet catch, costing Borden two fingers. Borden then ruins Angier's bird cage act, maiming an audience member and damaging Angier's reputation.).
The movie suddenly gets really interesting when Borden unveils a new trick, "The Transported Man." Angier finds an encrypted diary which supposedly contains the secret to Borden's trick. Angier and Cutter kidnap Fallon to force Borden to give the key to the cypher. Upon learning that the key word is "Tesla", Angier pursues Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to Colorado Springs, and begs him to make him a copy of the "teleportation machine" he believes Borden used, which is, of course, the Tesla Coil.
At the end of the film we learn that Borden is actually identical twins, but Angier explains used the Tesla Coil (a miniature version of which can be found under the hood of your car) to create a clone of himself each time he did the trick, while the original (or the next clone after that) dropped into a tank of water and drowned.
This insipid mixture of science and science fiction clashes wildly with the rest of the film and takes away from the rather interesting twist with Borden and his brother, and is one magic trick too many, ruining the entire show. Thankfully, Nolan followed this colossal misfire with The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and can be forgiven one big bump in the road.
I find this movie guilty on multiple counts of irrelevant (and silly) tangents.
10. DIE HARD 2 (1990)
A first class coincidence.
In the 1988 action classic Die Hard, John and Holly McLane (Bruce Willis and Bonnie Bedelia) took an unconventional approach to couples therapy by reigniting the spark in the marriage by strapping C4 and a computer monitor to an office chair an tossing it down an elevator shaft, and tenderly holding hands again for the first time as a bruised, wounded and bleeding John saved Holly from being pulled out a window to her death by a German terrorist, all on Christmas Eve. To top all of this off, Holly is captured on video punching out tv reporter Dick Thornberg (William Atherton), who's relentless desire to get a scoop almost lead to her demise.
Butch Cavenidish is a leg man.
Picking the least necessary element of this movie is not easy and I want to be very clear that I am not one of those sadly deluded Johnny Depp cultists who thinks that you can't blame the wide eyed, one note wonder for this movie not working. Yes, you can and should put literally everything that went wrong with this movie firmly on Johnny's head, right on top of the dead bird (ok,some of the blame does go on Disney for indulging him. If you asked Will Smith to star in The Martin Luther King Story, and he said "Ok, but I want to play Jack Kennedy", you would say "no."). But perhaps the most utterly irrelevant element to the storyline is Tonto and The Ranger seeking out assistance from Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter), a former ballerina who was forced to find a new line of work when the villainous Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) ate her leg, so she became the Madame of a brothel/circus (because if there were three things that were always missing from the Clayton Moore series, it was prostitution, circus freaks and cannibalism.). This character, and her spurious connection to the proceedings, seemingly exists only to indulge Depp's desire to have his frequent co-star from Tim Burton films join him for this self indulgent mess, and slows down the already plodding pace of the story. Director Gore Verbinski seems to be in love with the idea of a woman with a false leg made of ivory that holds a gun inside of it, but this bizarre, vulgar addition does nothing but add to the already inflated run time. I actually believe there are a few elements of this movie that really play (primarily the ambush on the rangers and the rousing, if overblown, action finale), but none of the bits with Carter can be counted among them.
12. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013) and THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014)
When I think about you, I touch my elf.
Peter Jackson's bloated attempt to prove that he could make all of the same mistakes as George Lucas did with the Star Wars prequels is far better than it's worst detractors would have you believe, and it has moments of greatness, which a terrific star turn by Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and great portrayals of Thorin Okaenshield and his brotherhood of dwarves. But there's no denying that it's full of padding to stretch it out into three films, and certainly the longest is the love triangle between Killy the dwarf (Aidan Turner), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a Lord of the Rings character who did not appear in the book of The Hobbit) and the beautiful, red haired archer Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a character that did not appear anywhere in any book. There are a number of problems with this plot, starting with the fact that Bloom has noticeably aged since the original trilogy and gained a much more adult build. I can't say for certain that he is wearing a girdle in the film, but for whatever reason he looks uncomfortable and constipated most of the time. And despite the fact that they've added too much to the length, they have not added enough time or meaningful interaction to make the claim that Killi's death hurts so much because the love between her and Tauriel was real sell in the slightest. It plays like a confused High School infatuation at best. Still, there is one thing the plot has going in its favor, and that is that at enjoy least it means we are not watching Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown and especially Ryan Gage as gruellingly annoying toady, Alfrid, who nearly ruins the third film entirely.
For me, the pluses still outweigh the minuses and I enjoy these three films that should have been one, but by it's very nature the series cries out to be included in this list.
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