When is a piece of garbage not a complete piece of garbage? When it has a good performance. We all know the feeling. You’re sitting there watching a movie. It’s bad, but someone in it — maybe a lead, maybe a supporting player — is doing something special. Perhaps they’re really committed to the material, or they’re entertainingly going off the wall, as if they know the film isn’t good and they’ve decided to have a little fun with it. You perk up whenever they come on screen. Afterward, you say, Man, that movie sucked, but so-and-so was great!
One special performance can mitigate a picture’s overall lack of quality. It at least gives you something worthwhile for your time and money. You leave feeling as though it wasn’t all a complete waste. Below are fifteen examples of this phenomenon. The actors in question demonstrated a high degree of excellence, even when faced with bad scripts, incompetent direction, and/or weak costars. They made the most of a bad experience.
Here are 15 Amazing Performances In Terrible Movies.
15. Christopher Walken in Gigli
Is there any movie that Christopher Walken doesn’t automatically make better? No, and that includes The Country Bears. (You forgot about that one, didn’t you?) It also includes Gigli, the notorious turkey that, to paraphrase Bart Simpson, achieves the impossible by both sucking and blowing simultaneously. In case you haven’t seen it — and we’re jealous if you haven’t — Gigli is the tale of a low-level mobster (Ben Affleck) working with a lesbian criminal (Jennifer Lopez) to kidnap the mentally challenged brother of a federal prosecutor.
Walken only has a few minutes of screen time, playing a detective who grills Affleck about the crime. Well, sort of. He also kind of goes on a rant about pie a la mode that includes pronouncing the word “interested” as “in-TRES-ted.” Gigli was a famously troubled production. What director Martin Brest had in mind is anyone’s guess. Still, he was smart enough to just let Walken come in and do his uniquely weird Christopher Walken-y thing. The actor provides a demented, go-for-broke bright spot in an otherwise dreary, misguided film.
14. Naomi Watts in Shut In
Shut In is the story of widowed child psychiatrist Mary Portman (Naomi Watts). She cares for her teenage stepson, who was left physically and mentally disabled following a car accident. One of her patients, a deaf little boy (played by Jacob Tremblay), goes missing and is presumed dead. Mary thinks that she sees him stalking around her property at night, though, and he may be gaining access to her house, too. What starts off as an intriguing drama eventually turns into a silly, predictable shock-fest, with standard issue jump scares and a third-act plot twist so absurd that you’re far more likely to laugh than to gasp.
While the story Shut In tells is preposterous, there’s no denying that Naomi Watts creates an affecting portrait of a woman in grief. A trained Method actress, Watts always has a way of making the painful emotions her characters experience palpable for the viewing audience. Everything around her starts to devolve into silliness, but she remains committed to the idea that Mary thinks she can find healing by helping the little boy if he is, in fact, alive. It’s a deeply felt, nuanced performance in a movie that is in no way deserving of such commitment.
13. Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Amazing Spider-Man was a completely unnecessary reboot of the franchise that director Sam Raimi so skillfully guided. It’s pretty common knowledge that Sony didn’t want to lose their screen rights to the character, so when Raimi and original star Tobey Maguire opted not to make a fourth installment, the studio simply went back to the drawing board. The reboot showed signs of being rushed into production without a clear vision, but it was actually a pretty solid (if unremarkable) superhero flick when all was said and done, as new Spidey Andrew Garfield displayed real promise in the role.
That promise came through loud and clear with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a sequel that takes everything that doesn’t work about its predecessor and amplifies it. The picture has too many villains and too many subplots, plus a downer of an ending featuring an event that shouldn’t have been squeezed into the last fifteen minutes. And let’s not forget Jamie Foxx’s embarrassingly overwrought performance as Electro.
In spite of all those problems, Garfield shows great comfort in the role, expertly capturing the adolescent angst that has always made Spider-Man one of Marvel’s most beloved heroes. His chemistry with co-star Emma Stone is magical, and the way he conveys Peter Parker’s abrupt launch into maturity after the climactic tragedy has undeniable grace. Thanks to a sub-par box office performance, this iteration of the character came to a grinding halt. Garfield, who was perfectly cast, deserves none of the blame.
12. Mickey Rourke in The Expendables
The Expendables coasts by on its gimmick, which is bringing together a veritable Who’s Who of action stars, from Sly Stallone, to Jet Li, to Jason Statham. Even Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger make appearances. While it’s admittedly fun to see so many big names sharing the screen, the movie itself is extraordinarily dumb, with virtually no story or character development to speak of. (The actors essentially play their own public personas.) Basically, it’s a big, loud, chaotic mess, with little or no redeeming value as a piece of art.
Except for one thing: Mickey Rourke. The actor, who was hot off his career comeback in The Wrestler when the picture was made, plays Tool, a former Expendable whose tattoo parlor doubles as the group’s headquarters. He gets a big scene in which his character remorsefully recalls a time when he could have saved a woman’s life but let her commit suicide instead. Rourke is clearly the only cast member trying to bring something real to the project. In the process, he outclasses his co-stars, while also reminding us what a charismatic actor he is.
11. Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safron Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was an acclaimed work that told the story of a nine-year-old boy trying to find out the meaning of a key that belonged to his father, who was killed during the terrorist attack of September 11. Stephen Daldry’s screen adaptation of that novel was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. That said, it is widely considered one of the least-deserving films ever to receive that distinction. Daldry made a heavy-handed, maudlin work that looks like a prestige picture from a distance, but is revealed to be a glorified Lifetime TV movie upon further inspection.
By far, the best thing about Extremely Loud is the supporting performance from Max von Sydow. The veteran actor, who got an Oscar nod for his work, portrays a mute man the little boy encounters on his quest to figure out what the key unlocks. His character has “yes” tattooed on one hand, “no” on the other. Without ever speaking a word, von Sydow brings a much-needed sense of sincerity to an otherwise shamelessly manipulative film. If there’s any genuine soul to be found in this turkey, he provides it.
10. Jennifer Aniston in Cake
After years of making generic romantic comedies or playing thankless girlfriend roles in movies, it’s no wonder Jennifer Aniston wanted to find a part she could sink her teeth into the same way she did playing Rachel Green on Friends. She got her chance with the drama Cake, playing a facially-scarred woman dealing with chronic pain issues. The film embraces almost every imaginable indie movie cliche about overcoming adversity as it shows how her character learns to deal with guilt and depression. Even the revelation about how she sustained her injuries is predictable for anyone who’s even remotely versed in independent cinema.
While Cake is a rubber-stamped affair, Aniston nonetheless delivers a heartfelt performance that contains real power. The actress hits all the right notes of sarcasm, anger, guilt, and rage that her character goes through. She’s always had an imminently likable quality that makes audiences care about her. This time, she uses that quality to explore some darker areas, and the effect is dazzling. Aniston was nominated for Best Actress by the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics’ Choice’Awards for her work in Cake. It is an accomplished turn in a picture that is otherwise utterly forgettable.
9. Jim Carrey in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
In teaming Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was intended to be a comedy smash. Set in the world of professional magic, Carell plays an old-school Vegas magician who finds his act becoming less and less interesting to audiences. Carrey plays a rival street magician, whose edgy tricks are featured on a show called “Mind Rapist.” This sounds like the set-up for a real knee-slapper, but Burt Wonderstone pulls its punches, never quite pushing the envelope as far as it should. Watching the movie, you can’t escape the feeling that it ought to be a whole lot funnier than it actually is.
Even if it’s a big time missed opportunity, Carrey does some of the finest work of his career satirizing the pretentiousness of real-life street magicians like David Blaine and Criss Angel (whose trademark appearance was clearly a model for the character). One of the few really hilarious scenes finds him pulling a Blaine-inspired endurance stunt in which he consumes vast amounts of water, then tries to avoid peeing for several days. The comedian has a lot of fun mocking the self-serious affectations of today’s most popular street magicians — and he’s hysterically good at it, too.
8. Ben Foster in The Program
Ben Foster is one of the leading actors in the industry when it comes to giving amazing performances in terrible movies. Everything he does is full of passion, yet the movies in which he appears often aren’t up to his exacting standards. Case in point: The Program, in which he plays disgraced seven-time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong. The film focuses on Armstrong running an illegal doping program that allows him to achieve astonishing success. In so doing, it leaves out a lot of fairly important details about its subject’s life — including his relationship with singer Sheryl Crow — that might have made it a fully engrossing portrait of a controversial figure. The biopic, while not entirely meritless, is decidely lacking.
But Foster? He’s outright scary. Not only does he take steps to make himself physically look like Armstrong, he also nails that cold, narcissistic demeanor that the cyclist routinely projects in interviews. The performance is so convincing that you forget you’re watching Ben Foster and think you’re watching the real guy. Too bad everything else in The Program isn’t on the same level.
7. Charlize Theron in The Huntsman: Winter’s War
Snow White and the Huntsman probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a great film. Still, it is beautiful to look at, and Charlize Theron gives an awesome scenery-chewing performance as the evil Ravenna. She brings a much-needed sense of fun. There really wasn’t anywhere for that story to go when it was over — and star Kristen Stewart decided she’d had enough with the franchise — but that didn’t stop the studio from trying to turn the property into a franchise with a prequel, The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Unsure where to go or what to do, the movie ends up following several different plot threads, none of which are even remotely satisfying.
Theron has a smaller part this time, but she’s every bit as good as she was during the first go-round. Whereas most everything else is muddled, silly, or both, the actress understands that a fairy tale needs an over-the-top villain. That’s what makes the performance special. Playing a baddie is harder than it seems; you need to be evil, but entertainingly so. Basically, the audience has to love hating you, and Theron shows a clear fundamental understanding of that. Even if Winter’s War is no great shakes, aspiring actors would be smart to study her work in these two movies as an example of how to have fun being nasty.
6. Jake Gyllenhall in Southpaw
Okay, so maybe Southpaw isn’t completely terrible. Massively disappointing is more like it. Jake Gyllenhaal plays light heavyweight boxing champion Billy Hope, whose wife (Rachel McAdams) is killed during his outside-the-ring scuffle with another pugilist. Then, his daughter is taken from him by Child Protective Services. He falls into depression and alcohol abuse before trying to work his way back, with the help of a no-nonsense trainer, played by Forest Whitaker. The problem with Southpaw is that it’s relentlessly grim, without a single moment of levity to break things up. So many awful things happen to Billy that watching the movie becomes punishing.
Still, you have to hand it to Gyllenhaal, who bulked up to credibly portray a boxer. The dude is ripped. He also does his own boxing scenes, which absolutely gives them a sense of authenticity. Perhaps most interestingly, the actor uses boxing stances to reflect the character’s moods. When Billy is angry, his posture is upright, as though ready to fight. When he’s depressed, he puts his head down and brings an arm up, like he’s defending himself from life’s punches. Southpaw is hard to watch because it’s repetitively downbeat, but Gyllenhall undeniably gives a (pun intended) knockout performance.
5. Eddie Murphy in Tower Heist
Has any major star had a career as frustrating as Eddie Murphy’s? In the ’80s, he was a comedy Goliath, cranking out hilarious R-rated comedies like 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America. Admittedly, the ’90s were a little hit (The Nutty Professor) and miss (Holy Man), but by the 2000s, Murphy had completely abandoned the anarchic spirit that made him a superstar. Instead, he did a series of lifeless kiddie comedies like Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, and Imagine That, plus brain-dead fluff such as Meet Dave and The Adventures of Pluto Nash. The question on the minds of his fans was: Why can’t we have the old Eddie back?
Well, we briefly did, but no one noticed, because his return was in a movie that wasn’t very good. Tower Heist stars Ben Stiller as the manager of a swanky New York high-rise. He orchestrates a plan to rip off the billionaire financial investor (Alan Alda) who has screwed over the building’s staff. Murphy plays Slide, a wise-cracking thief Stiller turns to for advice. In the role, Murphy is loose and funny, recapturing some of the manic edge he had as Reggie Hammond or Axel Foley. He finds the mojo of his early years. Tower Heist was a box office bust, so fans missed out on the very thing they’d been clamoring for. While we can’t entirely recommend the film as a whole, we absolutely recommend seeing it for Murphy’s all-too-brief return to form.
4. Hank Azaria in The Smurfs
The Smurfs uses CGI technology to bring the little blue creatures to the big screen. The plot entails several of the Smurfs getting sucked into a vortex and dropped right into the heart of New York City, where they befriend a married couple (Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays). Their old nemesis Gargamel pursues them, which leads to a slapstick-filled adventure. All of it is aimed at very young children, meaning that adults may be likely to intermittently nod off.
There’s something cynical about the way Hollywood cheerfully takes everything that was once popular and tries to make a blockbuster movie from it. At least The Smurfs has an ace in the hole, namely Hank Azaria, who plays Gargamel. The bald villain with bad eyebrows is a pretty exaggerated figure. You wouldn’t think an actor could convincingly portray him, but Azaria does so beautifully. He uses his crack comic timing and gift for creating weird voices to morph into a human cartoon character. Every scene featuring Gargamel is surprisingly funny. Even if The Smurfs feels too immature for your taste, we’re betting you’ll get some giggles from Azaria’s masterful wackiness. He’s just as good in the sequel.
3. Gina Gershon in Showgirls
After Basic Instinct turned into a controversial phenomenon, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas became a hot property in Hollywood. His scripts started bidding wars that earned him millions. The problem was that Eszterhas kept trying to make lightning strike twice. His follow-up projects increased the amount of provocative sexual material, to much lesser effect. That’s certainly true of 1995’s NC-17 Showgirls, which has become a cult favorite due to its unremitting awfulness.
Elizabeth Berkley portrays Nomi Malone, an aspiring Vegas showgirl. As her career starts to ascend, Nomi incurs the wrath of Cristal Connors, the diva star who is used to getting all the attention. Showgirls is filled with atrocious dialogue, most of which is unprintable here. It also has an inept performance from the seemingly bewildered Berkley. The movie’s saving grace is Gina Gershon, who plays Cristal. She is the only cast member who truly understands how campy the material is. Whereas everyone else acts as though they’re making a serious drama, she injects a wink into her work, letting the audience know that she’s aware of how silly the story’s events are. Gershon is great fun, and the way she blows Berkley right off the screen is amusing.
2. Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
In The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister. That sounds like the recipe for an instant classic, right? In reality, the movie was a bit of a bust, failing to become the awards contender it was clearly designed to be. Part of the problem is that it takes a Cliffs Notes approach to Thatcher’s life and career, briefly hitting highlights, without ever delving too deeply into any of them. Extremely significant events are glossed over in the process.
As should surprise absolutely no one, Streep is magnificent, even if the movie itself isn’t. She did get awards nominations for her portrayal of Thatcher. Sporting a wig, false teeth, and some prosthetic make-up, she closely resembles the real-life woman she’s playing. Streep, of course, is widely admired for her flair with accents and ability to disappear into characters, and those skills are put to good use here. This is more than a mere impersonation, though. The legendary actress conveys the fiery determination that made Thatcher such a notable leader, keeping an otherwise rickety movie afloat with her authenticity.
1. Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar
Leonardo DiCaprio gave his first amazing performance in a less-than-amazing movie in 1995, when he made a riveting turn as a drug addict in the otherwise melodramatic film, The Basketball Diaries. He gave his second sixteen years later, playing the title role in Clint Eastwood’s underwhelming J. Edgar. This biopic of former FBI director and noted grudge-holder J. Edgar Hoover focuses on his rise and his rumored romance with agent Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). That’s an interesting angle, but there were so many notable moments in Hoover’s career that the film simply can’t fit them all in and still maximize the relationship issue. It’s an ambitious picture that tries to do way too much.
DiCaprio is mesmerizing throughout, however, regardless of everything else. He nails the inner rage that undoubtedly drove Hoover to implement the groundbreaking (and sometimes morally dubious) techniques that characterized his reign at the agency. At the same time, Leo humanizes Hoover, suggesting profoundly repressed emotion underneath the surface-level bluster. It’s the kind of full-bodied, complex performance we’ve come to expect from DiCaprio, who helps us to see a famous historical figure in a whole new light.
Which of these amazing performances do you like the most? Are there other great performances in terrible movies that you admire? Hit us up with your thoughts in the comments.