Box office disasters: The real lesson of 'John Carter,' and has Eddie Murphy finally run out of words?

john-carter

Image Credit: Disney Enterprises

The chattering classes of the infotainment-sphere love to kick a movie debacle in the shins. But from the moment that John Carter opened, the perceptions of how big — or maybe not quite so big — a disaster it was were a tad hazy, and they trickled in slowly. A dry dust storm of digital effects, corny fetishized machismo, and bad acting out of the loincloth-and-galactic-tiara school, John Carter, as just about everyone in the solar system had predicted, underperformed in a dramatic way. But was it merely a “disappointment,” or a major flop, or, in fact, a good old-fashioned game-changing heads-will-roll executives-will-commit-seppuku debacle? What did the $30 million opening-weekend gross stacked up against the movie’s $250 million price tag really mean?

It wasn’t until Monday, in a front page story in The New York Times Business section, that perception of catastrophe became reality. “Ishtar Lands on Mars,” read the headline, and talk about a headline that’s worth a thousand words! (And a dozen executive heart attacks.) The Times article, by Brooks Barnes, pulled no punches in adding John Carter to the mythical dishonor roll of classic movie bombs, right up there with Howard the Duck and Ishtar. Of course, the era we’re in now is very different. International grosses provide a major cushion for a movie like John Carter — not just because the global market is huge and ever expanding, but because sizeable segments of the non-English-speaking world are even more receptive to movies that speak the international language of monosyllabic schlock spectacle than we are in the United States. Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter, a long-haired beefcake hippie Christ with a personality as thin as his backstory is garbled, is exactly the kind of blank-slate superhero that people from every culture can project themselves onto. He’s like the Harlequin version of a Joseph Campbell figure — the hero with a thousand “Blue Steel” poses. Movies like Ishtar used to crawl out of the theaters after a few weeks, curl up on the isle of roundly ridiculed trash, and die. You’d better believe, though, that John Carter is one fanboy bomb that will have an ancillary life.

The most revealing aspect of the Times story is that no one at Disney, the studio that produced the movie, would point a finger at anyone else, from the filmmaker on down. On some level, this was clearly a matter of decorum: The person who’s most obviously to blame for John Carter being such a lugubrious piece of space junk is Andrew Stanton, the brilliant director of WALL-E and Finding Nemo, who in this movie never figured out a way to animate live human beings the way he does digital characters: from within. To me, though, there’s a deep sincerity — almost a kind of Hollywood business poetry — to the fact that no one at Disney is hanging this fiasco on any obvious culprit. And that’s because no one actually did anything wrong.

Sure, John Carter is a terrible movie, but in contrast to a self-destructively expensive desert-comedy fluke like Ishtar, everything about it was made according to rules that work just fine in Hollywood about 90 percent of the time. You say that the movie lacked a major star? Tell that to the creators of last summer’s Captain America and Thor. It relied on an abundance of digital clutter to decorate an overly busy mess of a story line? You must mean in contrast to the marvelously uncluttered visuals and impeccable narrative coherence of every Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and National Treasure sequel. It was based on a stodgy old serial written by Edgar Rice Burroughs 100 years ago? Well, okay, now there’s a point — but in a movie universe where Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones can still be heroes, I’m not sure that attempting to update one of the original genetic strains of the sci-fi superhero genre was so very wrong. Andrew Stanton’s real mistake was in treating his source material with too much reverence, as if it were a sacred text rather than pulp Silly Putty to be stretched and fiddled with. The trouble with John Carter isn’t that it broke any of the blockbuster rules. It’s that it played by them so slavishly that the rules were all you saw.

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a-thousand-words

Image Credit: Bruce McBroom

What, exactly, is the deal with Eddie Murphy? Or maybe I should ask: What does Eddie Murphy want? He failed to win the Oscar for Dreamgirls (2006) — in fact, the conventional wisdom is that he torpedoed his chances by arrogantly refusing to curry favor on the awards circuit — but his dynamic performance in that movie still opened doors for him, and no one seemed more eager to slam those doors in his own face than Murphy himself. Apart from a couple of Shrek sequels, here are the movies he chose to make after Dreamgirls: Norbit (2007), Meet Dave (2008), Imagine That (2009), and the new A Thousand Words — in case you haven’t seen them, they are all Standard Eddie Murphy Movies That Suck — in addition to last year’s Tower Heist, a Brett Ratner block party that was his one token bid to play the “old” Eddie for R-rated adults instead of PG-rated families. Here’s the thing, though: The old Eddie is gone, never to return. And no one knows that better than Murphy himself. In one sense, he’s still a working movie star, and in another, he’s in retirement: a celebrity who no longer truly interacts with the world, who makes movies to keep his hand in and to support his lifestyle, but not out of any organic desire to appear in them. That’s why the pain of seeing almost any new Eddie Murphy movie is the agony of watching a performer who once approached comic genius not just go through the motions but turn going through the motions into a way of being.

He’s a comedy robot now. When he puts on the big smile, or does the big laugh and tries to pretend that he’s having fun on camera, the pretense is cringe-worthy; you can almost touch how false it is. A Thousand Words sat on the shelf for a couple of years, so maybe it doesn’t represent where Murphy is at right now, but where is he at? And what should he do? I say: He should come out of retirement — out of the megaplex limbo of glorified bad kiddie movies — and do something different, something bold, something that reflects the human being who Eddie Murphy now is. The fast-talking manic hustler Eddie is a 30-year-old persona that he puts on like a tattered clown costume. What’s beneath it, I think, is a far more reflective, cutting, and serious person — and, just maybe, a potentially powerful actor. Oliver Stone once seriously considered casting Murphy as Martin Luther King Jr. in a conspiracy biopic, and I think that would have been an inspired move. I’d love to see Murphy in a drama about Hollywood, drawing on his intimate knowledge of the Faustian bargains of fame. It’s up to him. At this point, though, he should do something that surprises us, and himself. Because the image of Eddie Murphy going through the motions is now looking unsurprising enough to be called unhealthy.

So what did you think of John Carter? And what would you like to see Eddie Murphy do to shake his career onto a new track?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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