1. Jeremy Renner, National Lampoon’s Senior Trip Academy Award Nominee: Best Supporting Actor, The Town
Before he earned an Oscar nomination as a maverick, war-dependent explosives expert in the Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker and stole every scene he was in as a hothead bank robber with a genetic predisposition to crime in The Town—earning an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor—Jeremy Renner began his Hollywood ascent in the 1995 road trip comedy, National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. In the lead role, Renner played Mark “Dags” D'Agastino, a vacuous stoner in the Spicoli mold in a puerile film packed with fat and fart jokes, entirely bereft of substance. The film earned a zero percent approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes, grossed just under $4.7 million at the domestic box office, and led then-New York Times critic Janet Maslin to write,“…there seem to be no stars of the past, present or future in evidence. But if any of the actors playing slatternly schoolgirls or nerdy schoolboys should hit it big, this is a credit to leave off the resume.” Well, Ms. Maslin, I guess it’s time to eat your words.
2. James Franco, Whatever It Takes Academy Award Nominee: Best Actor, 127 Hours
Like many actors of his generation, the now-ubiquitous—and revered— James Franco got his start in the high school comedy genre, first appearing in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as a token popular guy in the Drew Barrymore comedy Never Been Kissed, followed by his breakout role as slacker Daniel Desario in the short-lived Paul Feig/Judd Apatow TV series, Freaks and Geeks. Around that same time, he starred as a vainglorious jock-douchebag in the high school comedy Whatever It Takes—a film that bills itself as “loosely based on Cyrano de Bergerac,” which is like saying The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is “loosely-based” on Casablanca. Franco’s hunk wishes to bed his one unattainable conquest—bookish girl (Marla Sokoloff)—and enlists the aid of her nerdy friend (Shane West), in exchange for hooking him up with the most popular girl in school (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe). Franco’s character in the film is a total rip-off of Paul Walker’s in She’s All That, right down to his tied-to-a-bed demise, and, in his review of the film, Reelviews critic James Berardinelli wrote, “One of the few things Whatever It Takes has going for it is that the two leads (Shane West and Marla Sokoloff) are attractive and appealing, and both show signs that, given a project of some substance, they might be able to act. It's more difficult to determine anything about Jodi Lyn O'Keefe and James Franco. They come across as stiff and uninteresting…” Only recently, as Sean Penn’s first love in 2008’s Milk, did Hollywood circles start to take Franco seriously.
3. Amy Adams, Cruel Intentions 2 Academy Award Nominee: Best Supporting Actress, The Fighter
Following the success of Cruel Intentions, one of the more effective, titillating films to emerge from the “let’s transform a classic work into a high school dramedy” era in the late ‘90s, a spin-off TV series called Manchester Prep was set to air on Fox. The series proved too racy for Fox execs, who canceled it before it ever premiered. But then, in a truly shameless, sinister act befitting the film’s Machiavellian antagonist, the three episodes shot were edited into a direct-to-video prequel released in 2000. The aforementioned femme fatale, Kathryn Merteuil (Amy Adams), is a rich-bitch teen who mercilessly toys with Sebastian Valmont, played by direct-to-video sequel star Robin Dunne (see: The Skulls II, Species III, American Psycho II: All American Girl). Other than a fleeting scene where Kathryn’s mother berates her, Adams’ character is remarkably one-dimensional. “Adams manages to conjure images of Jan Brady if she were both rich and unapologetically snobby,” wrote Apollo Movie Guide’s Wesley Lovell. “That alone makes the film less bearable.” Indeed, it wasn’t until Adams’ Oscar-nominated turn as a cheery, heavily pregnant southern gal in the 2005 Sundance hit Junebug that she seemed to fully embrace her immense likeability. And she hasn’t looked back since.
4. Colin Firth, The Last Legion Academy Award Nominee: Best Actor, The King’s Speech
Though Oscar pundits view him as a lock to take home this year’s Best Actor Oscar for his emasculating performance as stuttering King George VI in The King’s Speech, just a few years ago, Colin Firth played against type as Aurelius, a courageous general in The Last Legion. A sword-and-sandals epic that mixes the collapse of the Western Roman Empire with the legend of King Arthur, this tone-deaf historical hodgepodge was a box office bomb, earning just under $6 million in North America compared to its $67 million budget. The CGI is embarrassingly pedestrian and the chemistry between Firth and his love interest in the film, played by Indian beauty Aishwarya Rai—in one of many failed crossover attempts—is non-existent. “The film is furthermore saddled with a brace of stupifying casting choices – whose idea was it to cast Brit Firth as Caesar's pint-sized, sword-wielding savior, and why haven't they been pilloried yet?” said The Austin Chronicle. That’s no way to talk to a King.
5. Mark Ruffalo, Just Like Heaven Academy Award Nominee: Best Supporting Actor, The Kids Are All Right
First, you have the gall to name a film after one of my favorite songs by The Cure, and then you use it in service of a derivative piece of romcom fluff? For shame. Director Mark Waters’ follow-up to the seminal teen comedy Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven stars Reese Witherspoon as a ghost haunting a landscape architect who moves into her old apartment, played by Mark Ruffalo. The movie is tonally uneven and a complete mess and, “Part of the problem is Mark Ruffalo, whose tortured sensitivity in You Can Count On Me and We Don’t Live Here Anymore made him seem like Marlon Brando's heir apparent, not Will Smith's,” wrote The Onion A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias. “Here, as in 13 Going On 30, Hollywood has tried to re-imagine him as its generic hunk of the week, but his timing isn't calibrated for silly disposable comic hijinks, and Just Like Heaven saddles him with plenty of them.” Ruffalo seems to excel when surrounded by a talented ensemble, as in Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right, and the aforementioned You Can Count On Me, but he’s too subtle to be the lead of a romantic comedy, despite many painful attempts (see also: Rumor Has It, View From the Top).
6. Annette Bening, In Dreams Academy Award Nominee: Best Actress, The Kids Are All Right
Ruffalo’s Kids co-star, Annette Bening, received her fourth Oscar nomination for her convincing performance as the more frigid half of a lesbian couple in the film, and has long been considered one of the most highly respected actresses in Hollywood. That being said, her performance as a suburban housewife haunted by her daughter’s murderer, a serial killer played by Robert Downey Jr., is completely over-the-top. Downey was experiencing drug problems at the time, and was arrested before filming on In Dreams was completed, but there’s no explanation as to why Bening would agree to play such a campy character. It’s as if her unfulfilled housewife character in American Beauty started experimenting with LSD. Neil Jordan’s film was a box office bomb, grossing just $12 million domestically, and the role may have hurt Bening’s chances of winning the Best Actress Oscar later that year for American Beauty. “Unfortunately, it's a portrayal that doesn't generate much in the way of character identification (fault Jordan and co-screenwriter Bruce Robinson more than Bening),” wrote Reelviews’ James Berardinelli. “There's nothing in Claire that draws the audience into a sympathetic relationship with her; she's just a plastic individual going through the expected motions of a beleaguered heroine in a desperate situation.”
7. Christian Bale, Harsh Times Academy Award Nominee: Best Supporting Actor, The Fighter
Christian Bale has always been a frighteningly dedicated actor who brings an intensity to his roles that few can match. His performance as crack-addict former boxer Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter, is operatic in the best kind of way. Sometimes, however, Bale can get too intense, burying his character’s sympathies in layer-upon-layer of explosive outbursts and tough guy attitude, like in Terminator Salvation. Another of these problematic performances is as Jim Davis, an ex-Army Ranger suffering from extreme PTSD in Harsh Times. Bale’s character is like a ticking time bomb, clashing with various Latino gang members in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, since very little context is provided, “The real problem with Harsh Times is Jim himself,” wrote The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris. “Bale goes at the part with his usual intensity, but the character still seems like a psycho without psychology or a soul.”
8. Geoffrey Rush, House on Haunted Hill Academy Award Nominee: Best Supporting Actor, The King’s Speech
Bale’s chief competition for this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Geoffrey Rush, is usually rather picky with his acting choices. His performance as King George VI’s Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, in The King’s Speech, wonderfully exhibits Rush’s deft comic timing. One role that didn’t show the typically spot-on Rush at his best was the awful House on Haunted Hill. In the film, Rush plays an eccentric amusement park mogul who throws his spoiled trophy wife a Halloween birthday bash in a haunted house (with a revised guest list). Reviews of the film were understandably abysmal, and Rush’s exaggerated, laughable performance didn’t do it any favors. Salon’s review of the film was particularly humorous: “ House on Haunted Hill, a remake of a 1958 William Castle movie, stars Geoffrey Rush and some other people, all of whom must have asked the Godfather for a favor years ago and had to pay him back by being in this film. I can't forgive Rush. What the hell was he thinking? He was terrific as the piano-playing weirdo in Shine. As a career choice, this was a pantload of stupidity.”
9. Nicole Kidman, Bewitched Academy Award Nominee: Best Actress, Rabbit Hole
As a mother grieving the death of her son in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman unleashes a riveting, emotionally naked performance that Time Magazine called “a career-best.” I prefer To Die For myself, but, prior to the much-anticipated return of her forehead creases in Mitchell’s film, Kidman made several puzzling decisions. In an apparent attempt to make herself more relatable to mainstream audiences, Kidman starred in a few regrettable mainstream Hollywood comedies in the 2000s, like The Stepford Wives and Bewitched. The latter film, directed by Nora Ephron, was a major misfire on all cylinders. Despite boasting a bevy of talented comedic actors, including Steve Carell, Jason Schwartzman, and Stephen Colbert, this silver screen adaptation of the beloved TV sitcom wasn’t the least bit funny, and the chemistry between leads Kidman and Will Ferrell was nonexistent. “With no help from the dialogue, Kidman doesn't have a clue how to make clueless interesting. Not for lack of trying. Her efforts, which often consist of channeling Elizabeth Montgomery by way of Marilyn Monroe, are painful but insistent,” wrote The Globe and Mail.
10. Jesse Eisenberg, Cursed Academy Award Nominee: Best Actor, The Social Network
Ever since bursting onto the scene as an impressionable teen anxious to learn how to communicate with women in the 2002 indie flick Roger Dodger, Jesse Eisenberg, with his neurotic shtick, has been heralded as the second coming of Woody Allen (sorry, Michael Cera). His performances as a confused, overeducated teen growing up in a broken home in The Squid and the Whale, and as the shrewd, determined founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, in David Fincher’s The Social Network, cemented his status as one of the finest actors of his generation. One thing he probably regrets is starring in the problem-riddled Cursed—a 2005 horror film directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson. The film, about a brother and sister (Eisenberg and Christina Ricci), who are bitten by—and subsequently turn into—werewolves, was a complete disaster. Production was postponed for a year due to script problems, several actors dropped out or were replaced, and the film bombed with just $19 million at the domestic box office. Eisenberg’s brilliant comic timing is pretty off here, muddled in the worst kind of Dawson’s Creek-style hyper-literate teen-speak, and, in the words of A.O. Scott of The New York Times, “It's not bad enough to make you curse, but you are likely to laugh when you should scream, and to roll your eyes when you are meant to laugh.”
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and is a masters degree recipient from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial dept. of Blender Magazine, as an editor at Amplifier Magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.