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Trash, Art, and the MoviePass: The Worst Movies I Have Seen for Free in the Past Year

The thrill of garbage movies at a low, low price

MoviePass/Ringer illustration

Three years ago this month, I signed up for the embattled, too-good-to-be-true subscription service MoviePass. Right before I went to see my first “free” movie in theaters, the friend who had recommended MoviePass warned me of the odd sensation I was about to experience: “It will feel like you are getting away with a petty crime.”

He was right. When the cashier told me that my total would be $15, I just handed him my MoviePass card, was given a ticket, and … walked right into the theater. That simple. I texted that friend afterward, to let him know how correct he had been. He asked how the movie was (I had just seen The End of the Tour, where Jason Segel and a bandana play David Foster Wallace). “Eh, it was fine,” I said. My ambivalence, unexpectedly, delighted him. “That’s the best part of MoviePass!” my friend exclaimed. “You don’t feel that guilt you’d feel after spending $15 on a mediocre, or even bad, movie.”

In theory, MoviePass could help you stay up to date on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, see enough nominated movies to impress everyone at your Oscars party, and catch up on repertory films that bolster your knowledge of cinema history. But none of those things are what I love most about MoviePass or, if I’m being honest, what I use it for most often. What I appreciate about the service is that it has allowed me to see countless pieces of hot, steaming, celluloid garbage with minimal guilt at a remarkably low cost. Unless you are someone who believes that “time is money,” which I clearly do not, because I am a person who saw The Snowman on its opening Friday night, having been sold by headlines like “Serial Killer Thriller Is Even WTF Worse Than You’ve Heard” and “Why the Plot of ‘The Snowman’ Makes No Sense, According to the Director of ‘The Snowman.’”

OK, now I’ve backed myself into a confession: I love bad movies. Love them. I am a devoted listener of the podcast How Did This Get Made? and a frequent ponderer of its titular question. I was once a member of a Nicolas Cage Movie Club that involved making up drinking games while watching the most inexplicably released Nic Cage movies (“drink every time he’s a bad lieutenant”) and trying not to die. More recently, I was part of a group of people who hosted something called “Monday Night Shyamalan,” which is exactly what it sounds like, except that when it came time to pick that Monday’s selection we almost always settled on Lady in the Water, because that movie is an unholy mess of plot holes, a stuttering Paul Giamatti, and creatures called “narfs” and “scrunts.” That (a few) other humans want to watch this movie as often as I do means I have finally found my people in this life. Shout-out to my narfs.

Our appreciation of bad movies isn’t ironic, or perhaps I should say that it isn’t exclusively ironic, because best believe a lot of the bad movies I adore are unintentionally funny, usually as a result of taking themselves way too seriously. (And laughing at a melodrama is certainly either the English-class or Alanis Morissette definition of irony.) But I’m fascinated, too, by the mechanics of what makes a movie bad, and how little distance there can occasionally be between abject failure and greatness (how, for example, can Paul Schrader follow up the notorious disaster The Canyons with the sharp, sublime First Reformed?). I’m also perversely intrigued by the ways that bad movies destabilize the way we think about certain star personas (it boggles the mind to think that Naomi Watts was acting in the acclaimed Twin Peaks: The Return around the same time she was playing a negligent gamer mother in Colin Trevorrow’s universally maligned The Book of Henry, or that Academy voters very well may have denied Eddie Murphy a Supporting Actor Oscar because Dreamgirls came out around the same time as Norbit.)

What can I say? Maybe it’s a bizarre, feeble act of cultural resistance. I like watching shitty movies with my friends, because the world is so unbearably serious right now and bloated with “prestige” that sometimes the only way to take a break from the doldrums of the good-enough is to go see the movie that has a zero percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. It can be freeing, in this time of Peak Everything, to unapologetically languish in the valleys.

And so in honor of MoviePass, and in hopes that it will be a thriving business forever (LOL), I would like to absolve my spirit and confess to the worst movies I have seen in theaters for cheap in the past 12 months.

Peter Rabbit

Nothing drums up my desire to see a children’s movie in theaters like controversy. And so when parents’ groups began protesting Peter Rabbit because of a scene purported to be insensitive to people with food allergies, and when Sony issued an apology for a scene in which Peter Rabbit uses Mr. McGregor’s blackberry allergy against him, I knew it was time to rally the troops and pick the showing when the fewest children were likely to be in attendance. The truth is, this movie was reasonably enjoyable — anarchically funny and slapstick in the way that would have made me double over with giggles as a kid. I barely even minded James Corden. The low point of the film came only after it was over, when the only other childless adults in the theater said amiably to me and my friends, “Hah, you guys got sold out of Black Panther too?” We laughed nervously. “Yep! That is why we are here.”

Uncle Drew

Uncle Drew is the first feature film adapted from a Pepsi commercial, which is a shame, because I would really like to know the backstory of Kendall Jenner’s model turned activist, and/or see a documentary about all the people who thought making that commercial was a good idea. As my colleague Rodger Sherman ably noted, “I failed to see any way that the viral Pepsi ads that starred Kyrie Irving disguised as an old man who dominated pickup basketball games could be adapted into a feature-length film,” and, after seeing it last week, I am still not sure I understand how, or why, it was. Mostly what you need to know about Uncle Drew is that Reggie Miller plays a man named Lights who is blind until he puts on a magical pair of goggles, at which point not only can he see but he can in fact ball. This movie has its amusing scenes and feel-good moments, but you do see Shaq’s bare butt in it twice, automatically qualifying it for a place in the bad movie canon.

The Snowman

The best part of seeing a bad movie in the theater is determining the moment the audience completely gives up on it, en masse. In my showing of The Snowman, this somehow happened not when it was revealed that the main character’s name was “Harry Hole,” but when Val Kilmer (playing, so help me god, a character named GERT RAFTO) first appeared on screen and started talking. Throughout Kilmer’s brief appearance in the film, his lines are overdubbed by an actor who sounds nothing like Val Kilmer, and whose speech barely even attempts to match his lips. Kilmer has said that he was recovering from throat cancer at the time of shooting and yet, as Sam Adams wrote in an entire Slate article devoted to The Snowman’s redubbing, “the fact that The Snowman used this bizarre workaround instead of recasting the part or reshooting his scenes is a good indicator of how astonishingly careless and incompetent the final product is.” Par for the course for a production that essentially ran out of money and time during filming, as director Tomas Alfredson has admitted. To watch The Snowman is to watch a Hollywood thriller splitting apart at the seams.

Show Dogs

Shortly after checking into Show Dogs on Memorial Day weekend, my friends and I were informed that, just that morning, the film had been pulled from the theater after parents’ groups had criticized the movie for “two scenes in which the dog protagonist learns to overcome his discomfort with having his genitals fondled.” The only other option was to see Solo, so we went home. On several levels, this was one of the worst and most shameful moviegoing experiences of my life, but at least I didn’t pay a cent for it. Thanks, MoviePass.

Gotti

“I expected GOTTI to be bad,” tweeted the film critic Jordan Hoffman. “I didn’t expect it to be incomprehensible. This is Ed Wood territory bad. An absolute must-see.” This is the sort of review that gets my attention.

There is something stirring about witnessing a cult movie being born in real time; the experience of going to a theater to see E from Entourage’s long-delayed biopic about John Gotti had an energy that was probably similar to those early midnight screenings of The Room. The audience laughed in collective befuddlement every time a character’s name appeared on screen (every character’s name appears on screen when they are first introduced, and yet this is a movie so devoid of character development that I still couldn’t keep track of who was who) or someone oversold a terribly written line (some of which are delivered from beyond the grave. Sure.). When a supporting character tells Gotti that he has guys in all five boroughs, and then proceeds to list the five boroughs, slowly, counting them off on his fingers … the people in the audience actually applauded. Given that Gotti was the second flick in which MoviePass Ventures took an equity stake, it already feels like the quintessential MoviePass movie: troubled, questionably put together, and yet experienced guilt-free.