Terrible performances in brilliant films, from Hugh Grant to Jake Gyllenhaal

IIt’s a lot easier to be the salvation of a bad movie than the worst part of a great one.

The latter rarely makes sense – when a film is in full swing and there is a competent director behind it, surely every element will work just as well?

If it just could be that easy. While it’s rare, there are instances when very good movies are nullified by a single bad element. Sometimes it’s a wrong accent, or a distracted actor, or even something as simple as a minor miscast.

To shed light on this phenomenon, we’ve compiled 12 crooked performances in great movies, from the famously incongruous one (Cameron Diaz in Criminal Organizations of New York), to more controversial decisions (Hugh Grant in love actually? Yes, really!)

And while you’re here, why not try the reverse of this strange occurrence – brilliant performances in otherwise awful movies…

Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners

Gyllenhaal is guilty of over-starring in Denis Villeneuve’s sordid child abduction thriller. While the other A-listers surrounding him (including Hugh Jackman and Viola Davis) bury themselves in grief and anger, Gyllenhaal seems to be in a whole different movie. Full of twitches and features, it injects repulsive weirdness into a film that absolutely doesn’t need it.

January Jones in X-Men: First Class

the mad Men Star takes on a flat effect for this otherwise great franchise reboot. To be fair to her, the character she plays – mutant henchman Emma Frost – is written as a hilarious arm candy and absolutely nothing more, but Jones seems painfully disinterested nonetheless.

Mark Hamill in Star Wars

First some caveats. Some of our greatest living actors were no match for George Lucas’ inability to write good dialogue, and Hamill got infinitely better as an actor with age. In those first three Star Wars films, he also plays Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, two of the most charismatic actors in film history. All in all, he’s still not very good in the 1977 original war of stars, Luke Skywalker plays like he’s a brutal 10-year-old. That was maybe the point, but it’s still frustrating.

Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley in ‘Bend It Like Beckham’

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Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley in “Bend It Like Beckham”

(Film Council / Lionsgate)

Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham

Keira Knightley is supposed to do it like Beckham what Mark Hamill is up to war of stars: an actor who would thrive with age, but whose fresh weaknesses are shown to full advantage in her first major film. Knightley plays a young footballer and comes across as distractingly wooden. She also agreed, admitting years later that she didn’t think she was very good at it.

Hugh Grant in In Love Actually

Many may think that Grant’s inclusion on this list is a farce, both because he is Hugh Grant and/or because love actually isn’t very good anyway – these people are wrong. But the actor is an unexpected weak link in an otherwise well-acted film. On paper he was supposed to work as British Prime Minister, but there’s a confident, slightly reclusive quality to his performance here, as if he didn’t particularly want to be there. Even his memorable Downing Street dance sequence looks like it was filmed at gunpoint.

Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York

Sunny, glamorous (and now retired) Cameron Diaz has always been cast against type, particularly as John Cusack’s tragi-comic frizzy-haired wife be John Malkovich. Every now and then, however, the opposite type became a “terrible miscast”. To take Criminal Organizations of New York, in which she played an Irish pickpocket, and the film’s love interest for Leonardo DiCaprio. Bad accent aside, Diaz is only really there so this Martin Scorsese epic could have another A-list name on its poster.

Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon

There’s an argument that O’Neal’s deadpan miscast is the point here, or a rare instance of a void at the center of a film that actually works in the film’s favorite. But that might be a bit of a credit to even the great Stanley Kubrick. Forced to cast it after Robert Redford missed the opportunity, Kubrick seems to be painting O’Neal around – this is a dazzlingly gorgeous epic, full of wit and charm, if paralyzed by its empty leading role.

John Travolta in The Thin Red Line.

Even in a movie with cameos from George Clooney, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, John Travolta is somehow too famous for that. He only gets a few minutes on screen playing a military general, but he seems so out of step with the film’s more ethereal rhythms that it can’t help but throw the film off.

Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained

A persistent cameo player in many of his films — and other people’s — Tarantino is always a bit of a distraction, but his presence pulls Django Unchained takes the cake. He only has a few unfortunate lines of dialogue – including the regrettable “Shut up, black guy!” – and also speaks with a terrible Australian accent. Thankfully, Jamie Foxx’s Django blows him up shortly after he arrives, saving us all in the process.

Russell Crowe in ‘Les Miserables’

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Russell Crowe in Les Miserables

(universal images)

Russell Crowe in Les Miserables

Russell Crowe can’t sing, which doesn’t help if he was cast in a film adaptation of Les Mis. But he also seems uncomfortable in the film, struggling to show himself under a tiny blue hat. His terrible vocals are reminiscent of Pierce Brosnan Mamma Mia! Aside from where Brosnan’s unique timbre contributed to the film’s rinky-dink charm, Crowe’s uncouth growl seems out of place here, especially when his co-stars are all up to their game.

Jared Leto in Blade Runner 2049

Buried in the Bladerunner The sequel is Leto’s overcooked performance as the film’s villain. He’s problematic in part because of the film’s script, which burdens him with hammy monologues and far too many opportunities to chew the setting, but Leto is certainly generally unbearable here. In the now imaginable set by Jared Leto, he also partially blinded himself to play the character and chose to wear blurry contact lenses that affected his vision. All of this strenuous effort is reflected on screen, to the detriment of the film.

Mickey Rooney at Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Isn’t it annoying when an otherwise perfect film is tainted with outrageous racism? More than just a dubious achievement that destroys things, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is undermined by Mickey Rooney’s hideous caricature of an Asian persona, tragic even by 1961 standards. Wearing a fake tan and a pair of buck teeth — along with duct tape to change the shape of his eyes — Rooney single-handedly destroys the film.

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