They say not to judge a book by its cover. On a similar track, you should probably not judge a movie by its poster (or trailer, or TV ad). That can be difficult, because some movies undeniably look dumb on the surface. Sometimes you go to see them and they are dumb. Then there’s a whole other category of movies that look dumb, and may even seem dumb initially, but are actually really smart in ways you wouldn’t expect. In a few cases, you might even miss how smart they are at first.
Some of these movies you may like, and others you may not. If you do like them, we hope to provide you with an whole new appreciation for them. If you don’t, our hope is that you will think about them in a way you haven’t before. We won’t claim these are cinematic masterpieces, because they aren’t. They are, however, really engaging and interesting if you look at them on a deeper level. Before you judge, give our justifications some careful consideration. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Here are 15 Dumb Movies That Are Smarter Than You Realized.
15. Ouija: Origin of Evil
It would be so, so easy to completely dismiss Ouija: Origin of Evil. It’s based on a board game, for crying out loud. It’s also a prequel to a 2014 horror movie that bombed with critics and audiences alike. Everything about it reeks of stupidity. Set in 1967, the movie is about a widow (Elizabeth Reaser) who runs a seance scam business with her two daughters. They buy a Ouija board to use as a prop, subsequently opening a portal for a demonic spirit to possess the younger of the two girls. Dumb, right?
Not so fast! Ouija: Origin of Evil is actually a surprisingly potent examination of grief. Reaser’s character uses the board to try to contact her late husband, and the girls hope to communicate with him from beyond the grave, as well. When they end up reaching something else altogether — and something with deeply malevolent intentions — each of them must deal with the disappointment. There are scares in Origin of Evil, but many more scenes of the characters struggling to find a way to cope with their loss. By helping others achieve closure through the fake seance business, they are, in effect, seeking closure for themselves. Addressing grief in the form of a mainstream horror movie is nothing less than inspired.
14. Josie and the Pussycats
Josie and the Pussycats is based on a cartoon from the 1970s that was…not great. Why the writing and directing team of Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan decided to make a big screen adaptation in 2001 is anybody’s guess. To their credit, they took a lump of coal and turned it into, well, not quite a diamond, but certainly something better than coal. The movie follows an all-girl rock band (Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson) as they take on a sinister record company CEO who plans to put subliminal messages into pop music, thereby controlling the consumer impulses of America’s adolescents and creating “a new trend every week.”
Josie and the Pussycats is not just a live-action version of a cartoon, it’s also a stinging satire of pop culture consumerism. The joke is that teenagers are all too willing to buy whatever they’re sold, so long as they are convinced the product will make them cool. In the end, Josie and the girls decide to make music their own way, and let others decide for themselves whether it’s any good. If there’s a message to be found here, and there certainly is, it’s that thinking for oneself is infinitely cooler than being force-fed an opinion by a corporate marketing department.
13. The Counselor
Ridley Scott has made a number of classic films: Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, The Martian; the list goes on and on. Still, he took some lumps for 2013’s The Counselor, in which Michael Fassbender plays an attorney who becomes involved with a drug cartel in an attempt to score some quick cash. When an operation that uses sewage trucks to transport drugs falls apart, he finds himself getting into increasingly deeper trouble with some very bad individuals.
One of the reasons why The Counselor was so poorly-received is that people took it as a drama. In fact, this is a (very) dark comedy. Fassbender’s character, who is only ever referred to by the film’s title, refuses to acknowledge that he’s in over his head. No matter what he does to try to correct the situation, his efforts only succeed in making things even worse. In one of the movie’s best recurring jokes, other characters keep warning him that crossing the cartel could lead to a grizzly death, but he just keeps ignoring them. Perhaps needless to say, he discovers they were right, at which point it’s too late. The Counselor is a whip-smart look at ego, featuring a character who suffers because he foolishly keeps thinking he can fix something that is utterly unfixable.
David Wain is a former member of the comedy troupe The State. These days, he writes and directs goofy comedy movies like Role Models, They Came Together, and Wet Hot American Summer (as well as its Netflix spinoff). His 2012 comedy Wanderlust looks, at first glance, to be another one. Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd play Linda and George, a Manhattan couple who decide to chuck it all and live a “simpler” life by joining a hippie commune. They find themselves unprepared for this lifestyle and its eccentricities, and complications quickly ensue.
The movie could have easily been a 95-minute mockery of commune life. Instead, it’s an unexpectedly poignant look at socioeconomic status. Linda and George, as we see in the early scenes, have spent years trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak. They risk putting themselves in debt to have a fancy apartment in a trendy section of the city. They worry about the public impressions they make. Eventually, this wears thin. The stress causes them to become vulnerable to quick fixes that they haven’t really thought through, such as — you guessed it — running away to join a commune. At the end of Wanderlust, the couple has learned that living a simple life isn’t so simple. In fact, trying to affect a back-to-basics lifestyle that they aren’t suited for proves just as pointless as assuming a well-to-do one that’s equally ill-fitting.
11. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most effective and beloved horror films ever made. It was fresh and original, with a villain for the ages. For the relatively pointless 2010 reboot, Jackie Earle Haley took over for Robert Englund as the gleefully evil Freddy Kruger, haunter of teenagers’ dreams. The plot is more or less the same. Adolescent Nancy (played by the pre-Dragon Tattoo Rooney Mara) realizes that the local teens who have been tormented by deadly nightmares have something in common: a connection to the facially-scarred criminal, Freddy.
At least the reboot finds a variation on the story. In the original, Freddy is a child murderer who got off on a technicality. Angry parents burned him alive, and he seeks revenge by haunting their kids while they sleep. The 2010 version identifies him as a child molester, then uses his invasion of their dreams as a metaphor for child sexual abuse survivors having to relive their trauma. It’s not a huge difference, but it’s definitely one that attempts to add a little bit of substance to the movie. By introducing such a heavy-duty theme, A Nightmare on Elm Street tries to carve out its own path, while also examining the devastating impact that sexual abuse has on its victims.
10. Sausage Party
Seth Rogen may be the current king of dumb movies that are actually smart. The films he writes with partner Evan Goldberg (and occasionally other pals) are full of raunchy humor and comic drug use, but they always have one foot in something deeper. Sausage Party is no exception. Nominally, it’s about a hot dog that lives in a supermarket and hopes to someday be stuck inside the hot bun on the shelf next to him. Under the surface, it’s about religion.
The food items, you see, think humans are “gods” coming to take them to the promised land. Once they learn otherwise, it triggers a crisis of faith, which the various edibles deal with in a variety of ways. Through this set-up, Sausage Party looks at how people interact with their own faith, judge the faiths of others, and maintain an important sense of hope through belief in something beyond this world. Amid all the R-rated humor lies a moral about the importance of accepting other people’s right to practice their own religion, even if its tenets are different than your own. Religion is a tough topic to tackle onscreen. Addressing it in the guise of a silly “talking food” movie allows it to go down much more smoothly.
9. Starship Troopers
Robert A. Heinlein penned a very successful science-fiction novel about a young soldier who joins the war against a species of arachnoids known as “the Bugs.” The book, which won the prestigious Hugo Award in 1960, addressed a series of social issues through the sci-fi format. For his 1997 film adaptation of Starship Troopers, director Paul Verhoeven cranked up the mayhem via the use of CGI effects to create a big, dumb, chaotic action picture.
Or did he? While it plays like a generic sci-fi shoot-em-up on one level, the movie also contains an undeniable satiric streak. Fascist-inspired imagery populates Starship Troopers, and there are multiple visual nods to old propaganda films. Even the wardrobe has echoes of Nazi uniforms. These little details show a hidden brain inside the movie’s head. Verhoeven is skewering what he sees as America’s fascination with — and glorification of — war. The gung-ho, rah-rah, flag-waving attitude is mocked by these stylistic choices. This kind of fascination, he seems to say, leads to an escalation of aggression that ultimately takes too many lives. Whether you agree with his take or think he’s barking up the wrong tree, it’s hard to deny that Starship Troopers at least tries to bring a little depth to what could have been a mindless creature feature.
Caddyshack is often referred to as a “guy comedy” or a “golf movie.” Both of those statements are only partial truths. Yes, it’s a comedy that men tend to like more than women (generally speaking), and yes, it is a movie that features golf. And a dancing gopher. The whole truth, though, is that Caddyshack is a sterling example of a film using broad comedy to touch on a serious subject.
The villains of Caddyshack, exemplified by Ted Knight’s uptight Judge Smails, are rich WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants). The heroes are Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), a young man from a working class family, and Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield), a loud, borish — and Jewish — nouveau riche businessman who tries to join Bushwood Country Club. Both of them are looked down upon by the club’s elitiest members, who also say things that are vaguely racist or homophobic. That’s right, Caddyshack is really about prejudice. Smails and others like him try to keep the “wrong” element out of Bushwood, “wrong” being defined as anyone they deem to be not up to their standards. Sure, there’s lots of goofy humor here (i.e. that gopher), but in the end, this movie exists to point out that snobs and bigots are reprehensible.
7. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Bill S. Preston and Ted “Theodore” Logan are dudes who love rock music and hanging out at the local convenience store. They are also the heroes of the time travel comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. After being visited by man-from-the-future Rufus (George Carlin), they are given access to a telephone booth/time machine, which they use to visit various periods throughout history. Some of the most prominent figures from those periods end up accompanying them back to San Dimas, California.
It’s totally possible to enjoy Bill & Ted as a goofball romp in which two lovable dimwits travel through time. That said, if you actually understand some things about history and historical figures, the comedy works on a whole other level. The movie is filled with throwaway jokes that only register if you recognize them as jokes in the first place. For example, Sigmund Freud, who famously came up with concepts like the Oedipus Complex and penis envy, is continually shown holding phallic objects such as corn dogs and vacuum cleaner hoses. Similar borderline-subliminal jokes about Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, and others are intelligently scattered throughout.
Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge is really good at using dumb comedy to say smart things. What is his classic Office Space if not a thoroughly identifiable takedown of the way corporations ignore and abuse their workers? In September of 2006, 20th Century Fox dumped another Judge movie, Idiocracy, into just 130 cinemas, with no promotion or marketing whatsoever. Not surprisingly, it bombed, with a lifetime box office take of just $444,093. The studio thought they had a brainless comedy that no one would like. They could not have been more wrong.
Luke Wilson plays Joe Bauers, an Army librarian who takes part in a government hibernation experiment. He wakes up 500 years later, only to discover that society has been dumbed down to unfathomable proportions. Everyone has the IQ of a mop, the president is a former professional wrestler, and entertainment appeals to whatever is lower than the lowest common denominator. (The most popular show on TV is called “Ow, My Balls!“) Worst of all, Joe uncovers a conspiracy to irrigate the nation’s crops with a sports drink. The often hilarious Idiocracy may look like an insipid comedy, but it’s actually a dire warning of what could happen down the road if our society doesn’t start wising up and embracing intelligence again. The future, Judge says, is potentially now.
5. Jennifer’s Body
Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her smart, sharp Juno screenplay. She then went in an entirely different direction, penning a horror flick called Jennifer’s Body. Megan Fox plays Jennifer, a high school student who goes out to see a satanic rock band, gets lured into their van after the show, and is transformed into a succubus who preys on her male peers. Amanda Seyfried co-stars as her best friend Needy (yes, really). Once she realizes what Jennifer has become, Needy makes every attempt to stop her.
Sounds kind of dopey, yes? Of course, that’s only if you watch passively. Watch a little more actively and you’ll find an unexpectedly savvy look at a dark reality of adolescence. The key lies in the portrayal of Jennifer as a succubus who lures adolescent boys in with a promise of sex, only to literally feed upon them. That horror-based idea is really a metaphor for the power of sexuality. We all know teen boys are horny. We also know that “hot” girls get their attention. Jennifer’s Body is ultimately about that power, about recognizing that, in high school and elsewhere, sex appeal can provide a way to exert influence over others. We’re not saying that’s a good power, but it exists (guys can wield it, too) and the film suggests that it’s a scary thing for an immature teenager to possess.
4. Swiss Army Man
To hear the premise of Swiss Army Man, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a hoax. Paul Dano plays Hank, a guy stranded on an island. Just as he’s about to hang himself, a flatulent corpse (portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Hank accidentally discovers that the dead body is oddly useful, so he utilizes it to find his way back to civilization. That’s right — this is a movie about a guy and a magical cadaver that farts a lot. And things get really weird when the body begins to talk.
If you have a perverse sense of humor, the film is actually really funny. It is not, however, a low-brow comedy. Laughs come from the various absurd ways Hank uses the corpse’s unexplained powers. For instance, he escapes the island by riding the newly-dubbed Manny across the ocean like a fart-powered jet ski. Then the plot starts to reveal unexpected depth. Once semi-animated, Manny begins to question the world around him. The depressed Hank teaches him about love, heartbreak, joy, and pain. We eventually realize that Manny is more willing to embrace life than his teacher, who has spent years running from pretty much everything, especially the beautiful woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he’s never had the guts to approach. Swiss Army Man starts off as a dumb comedy, only to gradually evolve into a weirdly touching look at how a dead guy teaches Hank to stop being afraid and to start living.
3. The Smurfs 2
No one would ever consider The Smurfs 2 (or its predecessor, for that matter) a great work of cinematic art. No one over the age of seven, at least. Even so, it isn’t fair to claim that the movie is without merit, because that isn’t the case. The plot focuses on Smurfette, voiced by Katy Perry. She’s the only female Smurf in Smurf Village — a fact that has disturbing connotations when you really think about it. After being abducted by the evil Gargamel, Smurfette discovers that she was created in his laboratory and later taken in by Papa Smurf. This causes an identity crisis that vexes her. Does she belong with Gargamel and his newest creations, a couple of “naughties” named Vexy and Hackus? Once she finds out that Gargamel has an all-new nefarious plan to destroy the Smurfs, she defeats him and heads back to Smurf Village, with the understanding that the other little blue creatures are her true family.
Perhaps you can tell that The Smurfs 2 is really about adoption. Smurfette learns that she was “born” to someone else and has to come to terms with that. Through the story’s events, she grows to appreciate the family that opened its collective arms and heart to her. Where she came from is not as important as the fact that she’s loved right where she is. Aside from the unintended suggestion that natural parents are evil, cold-hearted Smurf killers, The Smurfs 2 is heartwarmingly designed to explain the miracle of adoption to young children. It’s far from a mindless kiddie comedy.
2. Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is one of the most divisive movies of recent times. Some viewers appreciate the neon-lit look of the film, the non-linear storytelling style, and the astonishing method performance from James Franco. Many others find it to be a plotless, repetitive mess. The film tells the story of four college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) who rob a chicken restaurant to fund their spring break vacation. Once at the beach, they fall under the spell of Franco’s Alien, a dreadlocked drug dealer who enlists their help committing crimes.
Spring Breakers contains a lot of nudity, drug use, partying, and violence. Taken only at a surface level, it looks like little more than an ode to hedonism. Pay careful attention to the little details, though, and you can see it’s so much more than that. Korine delivers a scathing indictment of a pop culture-influenced mindset that causes many privileged young people to think there’s more glory in misbehavior than there is in true accomplishment. By the end, one of the girls goes home, another gets shot, and the final two are left with the devastating realization that their foray into the “gangsta” lifestyle has come with unconscionable repercussions. They learn that pretending to be a badass is not the same as actually being a badass, especially when you aren’t cut out for the role.
1. Sucker Punch
Once upon a time, Zack Snyder could do no wrong. His adaption of 300 and remake of Dawn of the Dead signaled him as a filmmaker who was also a passionate, knowledgeable fan. Then the world got a look at Sucker Punch, and his career was never quite the same. Emily Browning stars as Baby Doll, a young woman whose abusive stepfather commits her to a mental institution. There, she befriends several of her fellow inmates. To survive the ordeal, Baby Doll imagines herself and her new friends as heroines in a variety of fantasy settings. They are fierce warriors who fight zombies, dragons, robots, and other creatures.
Sucker Punch looks great, but was panned by critics and audiences for its disjointed, thin story. Watch the Director’s Cut on Blu-ray, though, and the gaps fill in considerably. Snyder has crafted a tale about dissociation, a psychological phenomenon in which a person disconnects their thoughts from their reality. It is a process that, in its more extreme form, abuse victims often use to protect themselves during a traumatic event. Baby Doll has been abused by her stepfather, and now she’s being abused by the facility’s administrator (Oscar Isaac). The movie’s fantasy scenes are her dissociation, her breaking from reality in order to emotionally survive a difficult experience. These separations also help with another psychological process: empowerment. By envisioning herself as a warrior, Baby Doll locates the strength to fight back against her abusers.
Much of the theme’s clarity got lost in the theatrical cut. The Director’s Cut, on the other hand, is an intriguing examination of an abuse victim’s attempt to persevere in the face of trauma. There’s some real knowledge of mental health issues in here.
Are there other dumb-looking movies that are surprisingly smart? Do you have any favorite movies with hidden depth or meaning? Tell us about them in the comments.
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