Every director dreams of being compared to Orson Welles. But having your new film labelled “the Citizen Kane of awful” might not be quite what Peter Farrelly had in mind. “There’s awful and then there’s Movie 43,” said the Chicago Sun-Times. For the Toronto Star it is the “worst film ever” and the “biggest waste of talent in cinema history”.
David Edelstein offered a cheery counterpoint: “It’s rare to see a piece of shit that actually looks and sounds like a piece of shit,” he wrote in New York magazine. “It’s kind of exciting!”
Such a pitch of criticism is proportionate to the expectations one might entertain for a film made by the man behind There’s Something about Mary and fronted by a cast that includes Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Uma Thurman, Terrence Howard, Richard Gere, Emma Stone, Anna Faris, Chloe Moretz and Jason Sudeikis.
Movie 43 is a series of skits. Winslet plays a woman dismayed when her date, Jackman, reveals a scrotum swinging from his neck. Faris has Chris Pratt defecate on her face. Berry’s intimate supper involves breasts in guacamole. And so on. How did the stars get involved in this rubbish? “Was someone holding Kate Winslet’s children hostage?” asked Edelstein. “Threatening to release compromising pictures of Emma Stone? Did Richard Gere or Hugh Jackman have gambling debts?”
Yet you can see the logic. Back-end contracts give stars a percentage of the profits in return for equity rates up front and a small initial commitment (in this case, a few days, for about $800). If the film flies, they clean up.
It also gives A-listers the chance to show they’ve still got their finger on the pulse. Catching the eye of a generation accustomed to short-form online comedy was, Farrelly has said, one of the film’s aims. Plus, of course, metaphorically or literally strapping balls to your face helps to show the star’s a good sport.
The casting process for a film like Movie 43 uses a domino effect, and stars sign on once peers have done so. Here, Winslet and Jackman were apparently first on board, shooting their scene more than four years ago. This footage was used as a calling card by producer Charlie Wessler to bag the rest. “The truth is,” he told Hollywood Reporter, “I had a lot of friends who were in this movie. And if they didn’t say yes, this movie wouldn’t have got made.”
It does seem that many stars tried to jump ship. Farrelly’s strategy was aggressive accommodation. “Wait them out. Shoot when they want to shoot. Guilt them to death.” The canny, such as Colin Farrell and South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, managed to wriggle out; others resisted altogether (“Fuck off” was reportedly George Clooney’s response). But some could not escape. Production was moved nearly 5 000km to convenience a sceptical Gere.
Strange as it may seem, the inadvertent or even fraudulent bagging of a big name is not so unusual. In 2001 Keanu Reeves claimed he was press-ganged into starring in serial-killer thriller The Watcher after a friend forged his signature on the contract. Unable to prove it, he agreed to take the role rather than face a long legal battle. Bill Murray famously signed up to voice slothful puss Garfield under the mistaken impression it had been scripted by a Coen brother.
Farrelly has fired back at critics on Twitter, saying: “Movie 43 is not the end of the world. It’s just a $6[-million] movie where we tried to do something different.”