One Man Spends Four Years Watching Hollywood's Worst Movies

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Miramax / Everett

Roberto Benigni in a scene from Pinocchio

It's no great feat to appreciate bad movies. A glance at most weekend box-office tallies is proof of that. But it does take a special kind of person to convince us that what we first thought was a crappy movie is actually a work of underappreciated art. Nathan Rabin, head writer for the A.V. Club of the Onion and author of the 2009 memoir The Big Rewind, has spent four years doing exactly that. His regular column, My Year of Flops, takes great pleasure in re-evaluating (or recondemning) failed films. Rabin's new book of the same name collects some of the most hilarious entries. He spoke to TIME about taking joy in fiascoes and what might be his biggest failed prediction ever.

Why did you decide to do this project? Are you just the type of person who, if Toy Story 3 is in the left theater and Marmaduke is in the right theater, naturally goes into Marmaduke?
I wanted to write an ambitious yearlong feature. My first idea was to do a year of Criterion movies, which in retrospect would have been a terrible thing for me. The art-house films of the world are not what I love. And then I thought, Well, what about the Academy Awards? That's even worse. Few words fill me with as much terror as Oscar bait. Anything that stars Hilary Swank or Morgan Freeman I'm generally wary of. Then I thought, "Well, what do I like? What am I passionate about?" Failure, flops, films that do terribly, films that are mocked, films that are maligned. That's what I relate to and what I can empathize with. I grew up feeling like an incredible failure. I grew up feeling like, Why won't people give me a chance? So I'm trying to give these films what everyone deserves and what very few people ever get, which is a second chance.

You grade each film in the book with one of three ratings: failure, fiasco or secret success. Where did that idea come from?
It's derived from some voice-over narration in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, which goes: "There is a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is the mere nonpresence of success. But a fiasco is a folktale told by others to make them happy it didn't ... happen ... to them." The idea is that failure is when you sort of try and don't succeed, and a fiasco is when you achieve this reverse alchemy, when everything turns out wrong and you come up with this monstrosity. I find fiascoes inherently interesting, and I'd much, much rather watch a movie that had some sort of mad-prophet vision, some willingness to take risks. At the top of the scale is a secret success — the films that are worth revisiting. Even though these films don't have much of a reputation and failed at the box office, and don't have much of a cult, and critics weren't very kind to them, they're worth giving another shot.

It seems like most of the films that you write about are generally born out of great ambition.
There is a very thin line between masterpiece and fiasco. The same kind of ambition and audacity that fuels a masterpiece can fuel a film that is just an abomination. A good example would be Roberto Benigni, who said, "I'm going to make this incredibly ambitious, heartwarming family comedy set inside of a concentration camp." A lot of people would look at that and go, "You're out of your f___ing mind." Jerry Lewis tried to do a movie like that called The Day the Clown Cried, and it's one of the biggest unseen calamities in the history of film. Why on earth would you do that? But he did, and I don't have to tell you that it was a giant international success. It made his career and he won the Academy Award.

And then he went and made something that was every bit as audacious and every bit as crazy and every bit as singular. He said, "I'm 50 years old, and I'm going to be Pinocchio." And that movie took away his Stateside career. Everything that he got from Life Is Beautiful, he lost because of Pinocchio. But the same sort of ambition was behind both of those projects. It's just that one of them, the public loved, and one of them the public said, "Oh, my God, what were you thinking?"

Do you think you've gotten any better at predicting what kind of movie will be a flop before it even comes out?
This is a tale that says everything about that question. I went to see a film called Avatar. And I was really excited about it. I thought it was going to go places that film had never gone before. In the first 20-25 minutes I thought, "Wow! This is such a visceral cinematic experience. 3-D's never been this advanced!" And then it turned into Dances with Wolves. I was just sitting there thinking, "Who the f___ thought there was a market for a three-hour-long, heavy-handed message movie about paleface bad, Native American mysticism good, populated by these hideously ugly 9-ft. tall space Smurfs?" I walked out of the theater, and I said to my colleagues, "Wow, that is going to be one of the biggest bombs ever." Um, history didn't bear me out. I may have misjudged the commercial appeal of Avatar. It speaks to the fact that you never know. That very easily could have been a giant flop.

One of your book's lessons is that a movie's reputation isn't static. It evolves over time.
Look, a lot of times a film has a reputation for a very good reason. I'm not going to try to convince you that Gigli is an amazing film because Gigli isn't an amazing film. But I can point out that it's a really interesting film, that it takes incredible chances, and that there are these indelible moments within it. Christopher Walken has this one scene in the film, and it's just nuts. It has almost nothing to do with the rest of the film. But for four minutes, that film is great, and that film is crazy. And then it goes awry. But I definitely feel that my whole project as an author has been to defend things that are widely maligned. And to defend things that people dismiss out of hand. Nobody needs to defend Citizen Kane or Godfather: Part II. But the Freddy Got Fingereds of the world need passionate, eloquent defenders. And there aren't any of those, so I guess I have to do it in their stead.