Underachievers Of The '90s
Films that could have been hits

The 1990s won't go down in history as the decade of revolutionary film-making. In fact, end-of-decade summations are already describing it with phrases like "the most creative drought in film history." But the '90s did produce some jeremiad movies that at least tried to decry the evils of the age. The fact that they bombed or "underperformed" (identical failure scenarios in today's Hollywood) explains to some extent why more subversive, transgressive films weren't made in the last 10 years.

See also...
... by Peter Braunstein
... in the Dirt section
... from December 8, 1999

What follows are three films that tried to rouse us from our collective "everyone in khakis"-style reverie. But we were just too blind, satiated, and numbed to the gills with antidepressants to notice them.

Strange Days (1995)

Quintessential Line: "You know how I know it's the end of the world? Because everything's been done. We've tried every kind of music, every kind of government, hairstyle, bubble gum, every kind of fucking breakfast cereal, every kind of fucking. What are we gonna do now? How will we make another 1,000 years?"

How It Pushed the Envelope: The entire premise for the sci-fi thriller Strange Days is whacked: The film is set a mere four years in the future, in the 48 hours prior to New Years Eve, 1999. That's like making a nostalgia film set in 1996. Conceived in the wake of the L.A. riots, Strange Days constructs a decidedly dystopian millennium that actually hasn't come to pass (yet): anarchy, inner-city gang bangers running amuck, the looming possibility of a race-war apocalypse. In the film one person complains, "The economy sucks, what the hell are we celebrating?" As it turns out, people in the real last days of 1999 are saying, "The economy rocks, what the hell are we celebrating?"

Strange Days' brilliant plot line centers around a bootleg technology called a SQUID -- Superconducting Quantum Interference Device. SQUID was originally developed by the Feds to replace the body wire but ended up going black market. Because this DVD of wiretaps plugs straight into your cerebral cortex, it records everything you think, feel, see, touch. Naturally, it's used by upscale porn dealers like Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who traffics bootleg "clips" of people's sexual and criminal experiences. Then Lenny stumbles onto a clip of two LAPD cops assassinating a political black rapper and has to figure out what to do with it...

Why It Failed: In the final scene, Lenny decides to give the riot-provoking clip to the commissioner of the LAPD -- even though its contents incriminate the entire police force. Normally that would be a really bad call. But all is not lost because, as it turns out, the commissioner is the one incorruptible cop on the LAPD, and he orders the police assassins be arrested. As I watched that scene in utter disbelief, a friend turned to me and said, "It ended like an episode of CHiPs." Add to this the fact that Ralph Fiennes (at least in 1995) couldn't open a movie himself, and the result was unmitigated disaster: Strange Days cost $42 million to make, and took in $8 million at the box office.

The Cable Guy (1996)

Quintessential Line: "I'm the bastard son of Clair Huxtable. I'm the lost Cunningham. I learned the facts of life from The Facts of Life."

How It Pushed the Envelope: This machine-gun satire of '90s society was an exploration of the isolation and sociopathic behavior produced by total immersion in media culture. Jim Carrey is perfectly cast as a funny but ultimately disturbing guy whose absentee parents left him alone with the TV (his "babysitter") for his entire childhood. The results are comical but also deeply disconcerting. The Cable Guy has no name, only aliases taken from TV shows ("Larry Tate" or "Chip Douglas"), and everything in life reminds him of something from a movie or TV show. By the end of the film, the Cable Guy bottoms out into full-blown suicidal psychosis. As the ultimate product of "too much TV," the Cable Guy is revealed to be the definitive '90s casualty -- a man whose entire identity is media-derived.

Why It Failed: Hollywood execs aren't really happy unless they're spoon-feeding us culture, and while they're comfortable churning hype like "this movie will make you laugh" or "this movie will make you think," promoting a movie that will make you laugh and think has them downing Excedrin PM like candy. Cable Guy's box office stats also speak to the difficulty of making message movies within Hollywood's current economies-of-scale. Though it took in a healthy $60 million, that amounted to nothing after deducting Carrey's $20 million salary and huge marketing costs. And since it didn't break the $100 million mark, Cable Guy "failed" by Hollywood standards. But after all, those standards are set by the greediest, most overpaid community on the planet.

Bulworth (1998)

Quintessential Line: "All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everyone's got to just keep fucking everybody until they're all the same color."

How It Pushed the Envelope: Easily the most unabashedly left political diatribe to hit screens in over a decade, Bulworth was a true jeremiad. Soul-dead Clinton Democrat Bulworth is reborn as hip hop prophet, thereby becoming the ultimate threat: a white man in power who decides to speak truth to power. His targets include political lobbyists, Hollywood Jews, insurance companies, and the news media. Sampling the herb, rap, and earthy hip hop patois at an after-hours club in Compton (where he learns what a "nappy dugout" is), Bulworth begins rapping against the system -- in that clumsy, embarrassing way you'd expect from a 60-year-old white guy. He busts rhymes in favor of race mixing and socialized medicine, and it's clear from the start that this radical film wants to arm the audience with corporation-damning stats and information.

Why It Failed: Director James Toback, who worked on an early first draft of Bulworth, attributed the film's box-office burnout to a demographic crossfire that left all the shooters dead or bleeding. "It was perceived by the black hip hop community as a white guy's film, and it was perceived by whites as a movie that, for their age audience, was not what they were up for," Toback theorized. "The white audience that wants to see a crossover hip hop movie is basically 15 to 26, while the black audience wants to see someone black at the center of it." Also, for such a smart film, distributor 20th Century Fox was too sparing with the marketing. By the time many people found out about Bulworth it had already left theaters.

And lest we forget, the last film of the millennium that tried to push the envelope, only to have it returned to sender: Fight Club. David Fincher's comic masterpiece about young men neutered by consumerism also "underperformed" at the box office -- providing more proof that casting $20-million men in these message-type movies tends to create a self-defeating box-office scenario. But let's give Fox some credit; they were behind Strange Days, Bulworth, and Fight Club. Leave it to Rupert Murdoch to let "The Man" know what time it is -- even if he happens to be "The Man."

Peter Braunstein writes about film and pop culture for the Village Voice, and is currently co-editing an anthology on the 1960s counterculture.

Peter's column runs every other Wednesday on GettingIt.