Return with me, won’t you, to late winter, 2007. JT’s “What Goes Around… Comes Around” is on the radio. Prince just rocked the Super Bowl XLI halftime show. American Idol still nabs the top two Nielsen slots, week in and week out. And after releasing five tepid vehicles (Showtime, I Spy, Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, and one of the biggest flops of all time, Pluto Nash) in 2002 and 2003 alone, onetime superstar Eddie Murphy had disappeared from the screen for three years. But he returned with 2006’s Dreamgirls, crafting an electrifying performance that prompted cheers from audiences and critics alike. Murphy won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for Best Supporting Actor, and was frontrunner for the Oscar. And then, two weeks before the Academy Awards, Paramount released Norbit, a reviled, offensive slapstick comedy that featured the Oscar hopeful in three roles, including an overweight woman who made Martin Lawrence’s portrayal of “Big Momma” seem incisive and nuanced. Murphy lost Best Supporting Actor to Alan Arkin.
We’ll never truly know if Norbit cost Eddie the Academy Award, but there was plenty of speculation, both during the campaign and after. It became such common wisdom, in fact, that a neologism was coined: “The Norbit Effect.” The term has since been called up whenever a less award-worthy film featuring a current nominee is released during Oscar voting season (and most of the movies released early in the year are, as we know, far from award-worthy) and pundits wonder if it will hurt said nominee’s chances. It was floated in 2011, when No Strings Attached was released during Natalie Portman’s Black Swan push (she still won). It was floated in 2009, when Bride Wars was released during Anne Hathaway’s Rachel Getting Married push (she lost, but she probably wasn’t going to win it anyway). And now, we’re hearing whispers of “the Norbit Effect” not only hurting Julianne Moore’s chances at winning Best Actress (thanks to the long-delayed Seventh Son; it won’t), but potentially wrecking Eddie Redmayne’s shot at Best Actor for The Theory of Everything. You see, there’s the matter of his embarrassing appearance in Jupiter Ascending, which is — and I don’t think I’m overstating this here — one of the worst performances in a major motion picture in the last, oh, decade or so.
You have to feel just a little bit bad for the guy. After all, it wasn’t supposed to go like this; Jupiter Ascending was initially a summer release, presumed to be long in the rearview by the time Oscar season rolled around. But then, at the eleventh hour, it was pushed back to February, ostensibly for more special effect work. Some of us optimistically surmised that perhaps that was for the best, that the Wachowskis weren’t really summer blockbuster makers (Matrix movies notwithstanding), that maybe the late-winter release would keep it from getting buried in the summer crush.
Well, come to find out, that was wishful thinking, and Jupiter’s delay was for the reason most major studio movies get that kind of bump: because it’s not very good. Oh, it’s ambitious, and cinematographer John Toll captures several memorable images; star Mila Kunis is (particularly in the opening scenes) likably plucky, and her chemistry with co-star Channing Tatum is considerable (even when they’re mouthing some of the most inane romantic dialogue this side of City of Angels). But the storytelling is clumsy, the characters are befuddling (Kunis ends up playing a distressingly old-fashioned damsel in distress, spending the whole movie waiting for Tatum to come rescue her), and the Wachowskis’ action sequences — once so graceful and thrilling — are ugly, noisy, and worst of all, boring.
And then there’s Redmayne. As “Balem Abrasax,” the film’s ostensible villain, Redmayne is about as threatening as a junior high mathlete; the performance exhibits a similarly parochial level of dramatic sophistication. He makes the bold acting choice of performing at exactly two speeds: either a sniveling cross between a whisper and whimper, or at FULL BONKERS SPITTLE VOLUME. (Sample line: “IIIII CREAAAAATE LIIIIIIIFE! [pause] “and… I… destroy it…”) It’s as if he decided to do Vincent Price on the quiet lines and Al Pacino on the loud ones, but without the humor of the former or the force of the latter. By the second half of the picture, his whisper-whisper-whisper-SCREAM interpretation was prompting gales of laughter at my screening.
Some are already defending the performance, insisting that no, he’s deliberately campy and over-the-top, that it’s some kind of Gary Oldman thing. But sorry, not buying it; there’s not a second of this painfully earnest turn that indicates the man is either making a joke or in on one. He’s just bad, irredeemably and irrevocably terrible, but that’s not much of a surprise because — incoming #hottake — Eddie Redmayne is not a very good actor. Anyone who suffered through his tic-heavy, unaccountably obnoxious turns in pictures like The Yellow Handkerchief, Powder Blue, and My Week with Marilyn can tell you as much, and if he’s not as bad as usual in The Theory of Everything, he’s not terribly good in it either. You don’t have to be, to get an Oscar nomination for that kind of role; the shiny object of a physical transformation does all the work for you.
That’s one reason why the Norbit/Jupiter comparison doesn’t hold. Norbit is a loathsome, repugnant pile of misogyny and xenophobia and fat-shaming, but you can’t say Eddie Murphy doesn’t give it his all; Jupiter is a better movie, but Redmayne contributes a terrible, half-assed, laughable performance to it. Secondly, Jupiter won’t affect Redmayne’s Oscar chances it’s not his movie they way Norbit was Murphy’s (he co-wrote and co-produced that atrocity in addition to starring three times over). In 2007, giant billboards of the actor smothering himself (and his awards campaign) were greeting Academy members all over Los Angeles; Jupiter Ascending’s ads don’t give Redmayne anywhere near that kind of prominence, and who’re we kidding, it’s not like voters are actually going to see this lemon of a performance (they can barely be bothered to see the nominated stuff). It will, most likely, carve out a place as an oddity, only recalled, in hushed tones, whenever connoisseurs of bad acting gather.
Jupiter Ascending is out today in wide release.