The summer's worst films

A special roundup of the big flicks that never quite made it, from "Me So Horny, You So Pretty" to Jerry Bruckheimer's "Ellis Island."

Published June 4, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

More than any summer movie season in recent memory, this year's lineup depressingly lacks old-fashioned star power and even buzzy, overhyped action spectacles. Save a few notable exceptions -- "Pearl Harbor," "America's Sweethearts" -- we've landed in the year of the sequel, the remake and the update, with another "Mummy," a "Planet of the Apes" and one more movie starring animated dinosaurs. It could've been worse. Much worse. Following an exhaustive yearlong investigation, Salon has unearthed 10 sorry flicks that even the studios saw unfit for public consumption -- 10 movies that would have made celluloid waste like "Scary Movie 2" and "Rollerball" look like "Wild Strawberries."

1) Merchant-Ivory presents "Me So Horny, You So Pretty"

What do you get when Hollywood's foremost purveyors of ponderous period pieces tackle a genre as populist as the gross-out comedy? A $40 million tax write-off. Touted by Miramax as a cross between "A Room With a View" and "There's Something About Mary," the film stars Uma Thurman (in her most convincing faux British accent to date) as a virginal horticulturist who journeys to the Big Apple with her sexually repressed stepmum (Madonna, in her least convincing faux British accent to date) in search of a hotel room overlooking the Hudson.

Along the way, Thurman's character goes goo-goo for a charming investment banker (played by David Arquette), who turns out to be a chronic masturbator with an affinity for crushed-velvet panties. When asked about his inaugural foray into mainstream cinema, producer Ismail Merchant bristles at the suggestion he and partner/director James Ivory are selling out. "Defecation, urination, ejaculation, flatulence - these bodily functions were as prevalent in [E.M.] Forster's day as they are today," says Merchant. "Our fart and penis jokes are treated with a subtlety and erudition not found in any trifling Farrelly Bros. exercise -- that I can assure you."

Last month, the MPAA slapped "Me So Horny" with an NC-17 rating after Merchant-Ivory refused to excise the much talked about scene involving Madonna, a shower massager and a Lhasa apso. Responding to the decision, Ivory contends, "The fact that Adam Sandler signed a multipicture deal with Revolution Studios should be more offensive to the MPAA than anything featured in a work of fiction."

2) "Jolly Green Giant: The Movie"

Not content having reduced two lucrative franchises ("Batman" and "Superman") to rubble, Warner Bros. aimed for a hat trick with this live-action superhero flick based on Birds Eye's legume-loving spokesman. "Considering the timeless popularity of green characters - the Grinch, the Hulk, Gumby, George W. Bush - it's only appropriate this beloved icon is given the big-screen treatment with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role," announced WB CEO Barry Meyer upon purchasing the property two years ago. "With over 10,000 licensees already lined up, from Dr. Scholls to Dexatrim, consumers are in for the jolliest summer of their lives." According to trade reports, a record-breaking 20 writers took a crack at the script -- "the interracial romance between Greeny and Aunt Jemima just wasn't happening," reveals one inside source -- and mega-producer Joel Silver even shelled out a cool million to tarnished golden boy Quentin Tarantino for one line of dialogue. ("It was worth every damn penny," Silver says. "His bon mot about creamed spinach makes the movie.")

The plot revolves around the diabolical Mr. Sweet Tooth (Christopher Walken) and his scheme to ruin the Giant by poisoning Birds Eye's food supply with saccharine. Plagued by budget overruns and reshoots (test audiences resoundingly rejected the ending in which Sweet Tooth converts to macrobiotic vegetarianism), Warners mercifully pulled the plug on its 400th day of shooting. The would-be blockbuster was shipped straight to Blockbuster.

3) "The Dirty Baker's Dozen"

A bastardized update (the studio insists we not refer to it as a "remake") of Robert Aldrich's quintessential testosterone fest, the WW II pic that laid the blueprint for all wisecracking, men-on-a-mission flicks to come. Tommy Lee Jones (trampling over the grave of Lee Marvin) stars as John Reisman, a no-nonsense Army major who is forced to train a ragtag group of condemned criminals for a behind-the-lines suicide operation. The assignment - infiltrate the seemingly impenetrable compound of a rogue Army colonel (Christopher Walken) who has formed his own maniacal faction of traitorous, Uzi-toting soldiers and declared war on the United States.

With a blasphemous disregard for its source material, actors Ed Burns, Matt Damon and Ryan Phillippe were cast in the roles respectively created by legendary toughies Charles Bronson, John Cassavettes and Jim Brown. When asked to defend his choices, ornery director John Frankenheimer is quick to deflect blame on his employers. "The brass at Warners wanted these pretty-boy pansies - not me," he says. "New breed of action heroes my tuchis! I haven't seen this much white bread in one place since last year's GOP convention."

Shortly after Frankenheimer lost a dispute with the Director's Guild to use an Alan Smithee credit, the master print of "The Dirty Baker's Dozen" was stolen off the Warner Bros. lot -- and has yet to be found.

4) "Love Boat: The Movie"

Inspired by the box office success of Sony's "Charlie's Angels," MGM had hoped to capitalize on the wave of '70s nostalgia with this adaptation of another TV show from shlockmeister Aaron Spelling. Writer-director Randy Spelling assures worried fans that he's taken "a cooler, edgier approach to the series" while staying true to his father's "original artistic vision."

"I've fleshed out these characters to give them more depth and psychological complexity," says the younger Spelling. "Doc, for instance, is a closet alcoholic who's tortured by the death of a patient he lost to ptomaine poisoning. Julie is a manic-depressive schizophrenic constantly torn between bulemia and anorexia. It's deep stuff."

Spelling also promises cameo appearances, but he's tight-lipped about divulging names. "All I can say is that what 'Pulp Fiction' did for Travolta 'Love Boat' will do for Charo. Mark my words - 'coochie-coochie' is gonna be the next big catchphrase."

Although most of the plot details remain cloaked in secrecy, the central story line is rumored to focus on a hatchet-wielding serial killer (Christopher Walken) who terrorizes the Pacific Princess on its maiden voyage to Puerto Vallarta. When the ship's security guard becomes one of the victims, the intrepid Captain Merill Stubing (Sean Connery) teams with Isaac the Bartender (a mad cool Will Smith) to capture the psychopath before reaching port.

On the final day of post-production, director Spelling accidentally hit the "DO NOT TOUCH" button in the editing room and erased every inch of footage in the can. He is now at work on a feature-length version of "Fantasy Island" starring Antonio Banderas as Mr. Rourke and Verne Troyer ("Austin Powers 2") as Tattoo.

5) "The Robert Downey Jr. Story"

In his swan song as New Line Cinema's production honcho, erstwhile wunderkind Michael DeLuca greenlighted this tawdry biopic chronicling the epic rise-and-fall-and-rise-and-fall-and-fall of America's most lauded chemically dependent celebrity.

"This is a tragedy of 'Citizen Kane'-like proportions," DeLuca was once quoted as saying. "It's a cautionary tale for the ages." Written by Downey and former "Saturday Night Live" collaborator Anthony Michael Hall during visiting hours at Corcoran State Prison, the film spans the actor's self-destructive life dating from his early pot-smoking days with Daddy Downey to his solitary coke-snorting nights in Room 311 at Merv Griffin's Palm Springs Resort.

Doomed from the git-go, production was derailed just two months into filming when Downey (a little too realistically) reenacted his infamous Thanksgiving blow binge of 2000 and was collared by the LAPD. Shooting commenced a week later, but halted just as quickly, when co-star Matthew Perry suffered a Vicodin relapse while researching his role as the young Robert Downey Sr. In a recent interview from the Hazelden rehabilitation center in Minnesota, Perry addressed his recurring addiction and chalked it up to stress. "NBC gave me a raise, I starred in a hit movie with Bruce Willis, I just signed to do a comedy with Elizabeth Hurley - it's been a rough year, you know," says Perry.

Originally set for a July 4 release, "The Robert Downey Jr. Story" now sits in a vault alongside other aborted misfires like "Town and Country - The Director's Cut" and "Little Nicky 2."

6) "Ellis Island," a Bruckheimer/Bay Production

Before ultimately choosing pyrotechnic-friendly "Pearl Harbor," the producer-director team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay toyed with the idea of setting a sudsy, jingoistic piece of hokum against the backdrop of Ellis Island - New York's landmark welcoming center for immigrants in the early 1900s. Based on confidential story ideas and script excerpts leaked over the Internet, the romantic actioner -- budgeted at $300 million -- was set to star Brad Pitt as Sol Moscowitz, a widowered Holocaust survivor from Poland who comes to America with the dream of owning his own pierogi shop. During the boat ride over, Sol gets seasick and throws up on the sandals of a spunky, ruby-haired lass named Molly O'Monahan (Sandra Bullock), vomiting his way into her heart. The two lovebirds wind up opening the most popular nosh shop on the Bowery and quickly find themselves targeted for extortion by a ruthless Italian hoodlum known by the sobriquet "The Godfather" (Robert DeNiro).

Bruckheimer and Bay have received no shortage of flak for the historical inaccuracies in "Pearl Harbor," but nothing compares to the trouncing they got from Disney suits over the liberties taken with their depiction of immigrant life (the screenplay actually describes the Lower East Side as "an urban Xanadu with a Starbucks on every corner"). In probably the most gratuitous sequence, an all-out war breaks out between Manhattan and New Jersey over control of Ellis Island, leaving both states in ruins by the end of the picture.

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Bruckheimer addressed the criticism levied at his ill-conceived undertaking: "When creating a project of that scope and magnitude some details are bound to get lost in the translation."

7) "I Love Love"

Having already romanticized talk radio ("Sleepless In Seattle") and chat rooms ("You've Got Mail"), Nora Ephron turns to dating services in this comedy about a shy, workaholic divorcee who reluctantly hires a professional matchmaker ... and ultimately winds up falling for him.

With a history more troubled than Robert Blake's childhood, setbacks on the long-delayed project began when libidinous star Meg Ryan allegedly initiated an affair with a 20-year-old best boy named Pepe. Appalled by his leading lady's carnal shenanigans, Tom Hanks requested to be let out of his contract and Ryan soon followed. Forced to recast the film at the 11th hour, Ephron settled upon real-life snugglebunnies Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie, a move she'd later call "the worst mistake of my career -- after 'Mixed Nuts.'"

Bringing their notoriously nutty antics to the set, Jolie and Thornton reportedly acted like a couple of horny high-schoolers, often tonguing each other between takes - and sometimes in the middle of them. In one well-publicized incident, Ephron browbeat Thornton in front of the entire cast and crew when he insisted on wearing his wife's undergarments during a crucial love scene. At odds with Ephron's Pollyanaish sensibilities, the dysfunctional duo eventually pulled rank and had her fired, completing the film themselves. Two months later, they delivered the final cut -- a cinematic effort one studio insider would call "a 2-hour and 34-minute cry for help." Deemed unreleasable by Fox bigwigs, Thornton and Jolie bought the rights to "I Love Love" out of their own pockets and are in distribution talks with Internet Entertainment Group.

8) "The Bodyguard 2"

In a last-gasp effort to resuscitate his career, Kevin Costner personally bankrolled this sequel to the inexplicable 1992 hit, guaranteeing studio heads that he would express at least two discernible emotions in the film instead of one. Costner returns as Frank Farmer, a former Secret Service agent hired to protect a pampered pop diva who's been receiving death threats from a fan driven insane by one of her infectious, overplayed tunes. After a nationwide search for a singer as insufferable as Whitney Houston, Costner handpicked teen tartlette Christina Aguilera to play herself. "It's a role very close to me," Aguilera would say upon landing the role. "I could definitely relate."

Originally set to make her big screen debut in "Marie Antoinette," Aguilera backed out at the last minute over "creative differences" with the producers. "I don't know why they had to let her die at the end," she said. "It was just like ... so sad."

Beset with production problems from the outset, the anticlimactic finale at the Soul Train Music Awards took a week to shoot due to Aguilera's inability to remember the line, "And the winner is ..." Because of Costner's refusal to trim 50 minutes off the immoderate 3-hour running time, the release date of "The Bodyguard 2" has been indefinitely postponed, again.

9) "The Borscht Belt"

"Dirty Dancing" meets "Moulin Rouge" in this dazzlingly ambitious musical celebrating the golden days of the Catskills -- the storied Jewish resort community in upstate New York also referred to as "The Kosher Las Vegas." Set during the cha-cha craze of 1951, the operatic love story follows the nebbishy Sammy Katzman (Ben Stiller), a down-on-his-luck comic who journeys to the Borscht Belt in search of fame, fortune and a decent knish. There he is taken under the wing of a hedonistic caricaturist (a skeevy Woody Allen) who sucks him into an illicit world of strip mah-jongg and mainlined Manishevitz.

Sammy soon begins a torrid affair with a shiksa dance instructor (Charlize Theron), only to discover that his beloved is stricken with "The Big C" - chlamydia. Determined to authentically capture the era, production designers spent two years re-creating the entire Catskill Mountain Range on a Hollywood soundstage. ("The real one didn't look real enough," said one of the PAs.) Saturated with over 20 dance numbers, just about the only highlight in this kitschily pretentious spectacle is a high-octane, sexually charged version of the hora performed by octogenarian drag queens.

The eclectic soundtrack is self-consciously anachronistic, featuring tracks that range from the sublime (Elvis Costello crooning Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night") to the ridiculous (Limp Bizkit's adrenalized "Havah Negila"). After several preview audiences became sick because of the dizzying camerawork, theater owners refused to show "The Borscht Belt" unless Paramount provided them with barf buckets for every seat in the house. The studio did not comply.

10) "The Omega Man 2001"

The second of this summer's remakes based on a cheesy, post-apocalyptic Charlton Heston flick - after Tim Burton's eagerly anticipated "Planet of the Apes." The largely forgotten sci-fi movie tells the story of Robert Neville (Heston), the sole human survivor of a biological plague that has turned the remainder of the population (dubbed "The Family") into a mutant species of albino vampires. Funded entirely by certain unnamed donors and executive produced by Barbra Streisand, this updated version is an unapologetic polemic set in a world where Bill Clinton's face is on Mount Rushmore ... and Salon is the only trusted source of news.

Alec Baldwin stars as Neville, a former leftist activist who's besieged by a zombified cult of radical Republicans ("The Reaganites") determined to infect him with their puritanical blood. Right-wing advocate groups have mounted a vigorous campaign to ban the film from theaters, citing a controversial scene in which Baldwin mows down a legion of Bob Barr and Trent Lott clones with a semiautomatic rifle. Gripes one member of the "Mommies for Morality" organization, "It's unconscionable how the filmmakers portray all conservatives as heartless, mindless monsters intolerant of homos, God-haters, tree-huggers, Negroes and baby butchers."

In his keynote address at last month's "Guns Are Good" rally, NRA mouthpiece Heston dismissed "The Omega Man 2001" as "partisan propaganda" before leading his trigger-happy disciples in a chorus of "Damn dirty liberals!" Buckling under veiled threats of an audit by the Bush administration, Dreamworks abruptly pulled the film from its schedule -- but plans to rerelease it as soon as the Dems take back the White House in 2004.

By Ian Rothkerch

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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