Sometimes even the worst movie has some good things going for it. More often than not, it’s a stand-out performance from an actor doing their best with the source material. Even when the script, plot, and special effects fail, some actors just know how to make it work. Sometimes you can tell an actor is having a good time, and it makes the movie seem a little less horrible. And sometimes they just put so much into the role that it’s hard to deny how great they are!
Full disclosure: these movies may be conventionally “bad” but that doesn’t mean they’re unwatchable. Pretty much every movie has a fan somewhere! But they’re not winning any awards (except maybe a Razzie) and are far from critically acclaimed. But in the midst of the underwhelming elements in these films are some stellar performances. Here are some actors that gave great performances in some not-so-great films!
1. Denzel Washington in Flight
This movie is proof that if Denzel is in it, it won’t be all bad. The strange, uneven movie about a pilot with a drug problem veers off the rails more than a few times but Denzel manages to keep the insane plotlines semi-grounded. He even received a few awards nominations for his role! Other than Denzel’s performance, though, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. It toes the line between entertainingly silly and poignantly dramatic, never quite hitting either one. But Denzel shines because Denzel always shines!
2. Adam Sandler in That’s My Boy
Adam Sandler movies have gone from sure bets to total stinkers, but he still manages to pull out a great performance every now and then. That’s My Boy is definitely not his best film. Sandler plays a man who impregnated his teacher in high school, tried to raise the child while still a child himself, and then ends up being estranged from his son for years. Andy Samberg is woefully underused as Sandler’s son, but it allows Sandler to shine in one of his only quality late-00s roles. He’s hilarious, genuine, and sells the hell out of his characters unconventional life. Sandler has been acting so long and is so rich that at this point it feels like he’s phoning it in during most movies. But not here! And that’s why it’s great.
3. Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia
It’s Meryl-freaking-Streep, I don’t think it’s possible for her to give a bad performance! Even a movie as meh as this one is! The film follows Julie (Amy Adams), a writer making her way through Julia Child’s (played by Streep) cookbooks. The Julie segments are boring, whiney, and repetitive and really take away from how fantastic Streep is a Child. TBH, someone totally could’ve made this a Julie Child biopic and we would’ve been all for it. But, it wasn’t, and it made for a pretty annoying film. Thank God for Streep’s ability to transform flawlessly into whoever she’s playing! Which is probably why, despite the disappointment of the film, Streep was still nominated for every award ever since she’s the GOAT.
4. Christopher Walken in Gigli
Gigli is one of the most prominent movie failures of all time. There is no one who loves this movie, and that’s just a fact. It was nominated for a ton of Razzies and universally panned. But there is one actually good part about it: Walken. It’s a pretty small cameo on the film but his appearance livens the entire movie up. His completely unhinged performance is one of the most entertaining, nutso roles of his career and it’s endlessly fascinating to watch. The screen loves him and he damn near runs away with the entire movie. Unfortunately, he’s not in the movie long enough to turn a relatively boring Jennifer Lopez–Ben Affleck romp into anything special.
5. Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York
Even Martin Scorsese can hit a rut every now and then. While this movie isn’t horrendous, it’s definitely nothing special. The writing is hit or miss, the plotting is all over the place, and it brings almost nothing new to the table. Plus, what the heck is with the miscasting of Cameron Diaz?! But, as he always does, Day-Lewis commits. He brings his all to the table as Bill the Butcher, out-acting Leonardo DiCaprio (and everyone else in the movie) along the way. There’s a reason 99% of the award nominations for the film are for Day-Lewis!
6. Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man
Did the world need a Spider-Man reboot? Definitely not. Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire already made some pretty dang good movies about the web-slinger, so rebooting it so soon set the franchise up for ultimate failure. But Garfield is just so damn charming it’s hard to dislike him in the role. He expertly captures the awkwardness and angst of Peter Parker and his transformation into a superhero. Garfield is actually a great choice to play the hero, but there just wasn’t a need (or demand) for a reboot of the franchise.
7. George Clooney in Batman and Robin
Batman and Robin is a black mark of all of the Batman movies as a whole. It’s campy, silly, and there are bat-nipples on the suits. Need I say more? But Clooney truly goes for the gusto in this one and plays up every camp trope like he’s acting for an Oscar. All and all, Clooney is actually a great pick for the caped crusader. He has the playboy demeanor and the jaw to play swaggering Bruce Wayne. This movie was, unfortunately, not the most opportune vehicle for him to do it in. But he still gave it all he had and actually pulled out a great performance despite the mess of things going on around him.
8. Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest
Mommie Dearest tells the true story of Christina Crawford’s childhood with her abusive actress mother Joan Crawford. Dunaway is delightfully unhinged and melodramatic as Crawford, but that’s about the only entertaining part of the movie, which is probably why what was intended as a serious film is now a campy, cult classic. But Dunaway’s performance remains the absolute best part of the entire thing. Her wild eyes as she shouts “no wire hangers!” and deranged episodes are so erratic you’re going to feel a little scared yourself. Now if only everyone was as committed to their roles as she was!
9. Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages
Rock of Ages is a film adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name about the hair-metal era of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. It doesn’t quite hit the high notes of the musical or bring anything of value to the big screen, but Cruise sure as hell gives it his all. As singer Stacee Jaxx, Cruise seems like he’s having the time of his life. While the rest of the movie seems to be just going through the motions, Cruise is literally singing, dancing, and partying in circles around them. Sure, his performance couldn’t save the movie from being a dud. But it makes it a million times more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.
10. Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar
This is a rare flop in DiCaprio’s career, but it has nothing to do with his performance. The film tackles the life of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, but tries to do too much in too little time with the man’s illustrious life. But DiCaprio still delves into the role wholeheartedly. He transforms his identity physically and emotionally, almost making us feel bad for the notorious Hoover. But like many movies about people’s lives, it just can’t capture everything, and it omits interesting moments while keeping in too many boring asides. Luckily it hasn’t seemed to hurt Leo’s career at all!
11. Jennifer Aniston in Cake
Jennifer Aniston movies aren’t known for their emotional depth. Sorry, but it’s true. So when Aniston took on a role completely outside her repertoire, fans wondered how she would handle it. And, despite the movie being underwhelming as a whole, she nailed it. As a woman dealing with chronic pain issues, she nails the anger, sadness, guilt, and depression associated with her condition. She gives an emotionally raw performance that we’ve never seen from her before. Unfortunately, the movie is ripe with cliché moments and a highly predictable plot. Aniston still keeps you captivated the entire time, though, thanks to her performance.
12. Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw
Southpaw isn’t a terrible, horrible, no-good movie. It’s just depressing as hell. And, on the whole, a bit unrealistic. But Gyllenhaal playing a boxer down on his luck is just so damn believable in the dismal role. You can feel every pain he endures by the look on his face or the way he stands. What could be a way over-the-top portrayal of the underdog redeeming himself feels like a real, hard-earned battle for someone deserving when coming from Gyllenhaal. You root for him and feel bad that this movie is literally destroying his life scene by scene. It’s almost enough to make you forgive the movie for killing Rachel McAdams ten minutes in!
13. Michelle Pfieffer in Grease 2
I personally think that Grease 2 is the superior Grease film, but I am woefully in the minority. Most people loathe the film, griping that it’s nowhere near as great at the first one. But there is one universal thing that everyone can love about this movie and it is Pfieffer. Whether she’s singing about wanting a motorcycle-riding hunk, fixing cars at a garage, or chewing gum like she’s the coolest girl in the world, she sells it. She nails the epitome of a cool-girl high schooler who is not hear for your B.S. and we love it. While everyone around her is a stereotype, she plays her role fully fleshed out, and fully original.
14. Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines
The first half of The Place the Pines is actually a pretty decent movie. But that’s all credited to Goslings’ presence. After the first half of the film, viewers are transported to the future as the film further nails home the themes of fathers and sons. But it never hits the high notes of Gosling’s rebelliousness and cat-and-mouse game with Bradley Cooper. Everyone else feels so muted while Gosling is bouncing off the wall in one of his most transformative movies yet. If the film had ended a tad bit earlier, maybe it would be great. But as it stands, the only great parts are the ones that Gosling is in.
15. Gina Gershon in Showgirls
Showgirls is universally known for two things: for being awful, and for being Elizabeth Berkley’s vehicle to try and shed her Saved by the Bell image. But while Berkley was trying to hard to be an adult, someone else was cool as a cucumber and stealing every scene: Gershon. As the dancer that Berkley desperately wants to be, Gershon is composed, gutsy, and full of sass. She plays every scene like she’s the head bitch and no one better forget it. And to be honest, it makes us wish this entire movie had been about her!
16. Ezra Miller in The Justice League
The Justice League has to be one of the most disappointing superhero movies in the last decade. While the DC Entertainment movies as a whole haven’t been all that great, there have been some gems like Wonder Woman and fans hoped this all-star team-up would be all they wanted it to be. Well, it wasn’t. It was plagued with director issues, weird editorial choices, and Henry Cavill’s mustache. But there was one great component: Ezra Miller’s The Flash. He’s so funny, genuine, and all in the entire time that he becomes the most lovable dude in the DC universe. Miller clearly loves his role and it shows. Now if only all his co-stars felt the same way!