July 27 2011 12:00 AM

When very bad movies happen to very good actors

Perhaps they are coerced by their agents. Maybe they feel obligations to friends or former associates. Or maybe it’s just because they need the quick money.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that a lot of extremely talented people wind up in some truly awful movies.

I was thinking about this two weeks ago
when I was watching an alleged comedy called “The Best and the
Brightest” (the title, as it turned out, was a double lie). The movie is
a lame, limp satire of status-seeking parents who will stop at nothing
to get their kids enrolled in a prestigious Manhattan kindergarten; it’s
the kind of material that might have been timely in the late 1980s or
early 1990s, but seems about as fresh as a Tonya Harding joke these

“Brightest” features Neil Patrick Harris,
who is not only one of the best comic actors around, but also a
first-rate musical performer, as anyone who saw the Tony Awards or the
recent broadcast of Stephen Sondheim’s star-studded revival of “Company”
can attest. In this project, he’s an oasis of class and control while
nearly everyone else around him stomps around screaming, mugging and
spitting out profanity-peppered wisecracks that are sorely lacking in

It’s almost painful to watch someone of
Harris’ caliber drowning in a cesspool of rancid comedy, but I thought,
“I’m sure he’ll have better luck with his next film. It couldn’t get any
worse, right?”

Ladies and gentlemen, this weekend Neil
Patrick Harris stars in — take a deep breath — “The Smurfs.” If God is
merciful, I will never actually have to see if he’s any good in “The
Smurfs”; if the trailer is any indication, however, “The Best and the
Brightest” may soon look like the good old days.

But Harris is hardly the only light being
smothered under a bushel. Examine, if you dare, the tragic career
trajectory of Kate Hudson. The daughter of Goldie Hawn soared to fame in
2000’s “Almost Famous,” playing the good-hearted groupie with twinkling
eyes and a sly smile. Audiences were bewitched, a star was born and
then ... .

Remember “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,”
her 2003 comedy with Matthew McConaughey? Well, it wasn’t that bad, and
it made a lot of money, which is more than can be said for “Alex &
Emma,” “Le Divorce,” “Raising Helen” and “The Skeleton Key.” Aside from a
second banana role in “You, Me and Dupree,” Hudson didn’t have another
hit until she reteamed with McConaughey in the fairly awful “Fool’s
Gold” in 2008.

Now, thanks to the inexplicable success
of “Bride Wars,” in which she played a maniac rushing to the altar,
Hudson has become Hollywood’s go-to girl for nastiness. In the
unwatchable “Something Borrowed,” she seemed to be aping her mom’s
performance as a vengeful backstabber in “Death Becomes Her”; the
difference is that Hawn was great in that part, while Hudson is merely
grating. She can still put on a terrific show in a supporting role —
check out her vivacious song-and-dance routine in “Nine,” or her strong
work in “The Killer Inside Me"”— but she desperately needs to avoid any
more snippy, sneering spoiled brat roles. (At least she’s not in “The

Talk to people who are trying to make a
living as actors and they’ll tell you it’s a brutal business. This is
not news: It always has been and probably always will be. And I’m sure
when the rent is due and the car is about to be repossessed, any job
begins to look like a prime opportunity.

Reflect for a moment on the case of
Michael Caine, who was known as the man who couldn’t say no throughout
much of the 1980s. Months after winning a best supporting actor Oscar
for “Hannah and Her Sisters,” he was starring in the megabomb “Jaws: The
Revenge,” a movie he now laughs off in interviews. “I have never seen
it, but by all accounts, it is terrible,” he told a reporter years ago.
“However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Unfortunately, most of us only know that
the undoubtedly marvelous mansion was paid for with a great big chunk of
a gifted actor’s artistic credibility.