When actors you love do terrible movies

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Jesse Plemons.
Jesse Plemons. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

I went into Jungle Cruise the way everyone should: blissfully ignorant. Not because it's so good that it'd be a shame to spoil a movie that was inspired by an offensive Disneyland boat ride most famous for its bad puns, but because if I'd known what I was getting into I'd have opted to spend my time watching a different movie about people pursuing an Unnaturally Glowing Object of Great Importance.

It was in defiance of a year's worth of Disney's advertising, then, that I was taken by surprise by the appearance of Jesse Plemons, who is both one of my favorite working actors and someone I still reflexively identify on sight as Todd-the-psychopathic-meth-cook from Breaking Bad (having not yet seen — I know, I know! — Friday Night Lights).

I'll fill you in: Jungle Cruise is set during "the Great War," and Plemons plays a German prince/U-boat captain named Joachim, who wants to beat the British botanist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt, doing her best Katharine Hepburn impression) and riverboat captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, doing his best Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson impression) to finding a magical cure-all called the Tears of the Moon (glowing CGI flowers, doing their best impression of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones). Joachim's motivation is to "help Germany," which is how you know he's the bad guy, though he also slaughters a bunch of annoying British museum society members at the beginning of the film to clear up any doubt.

To Plemons' credit, he plays the role with what I'd describe as "amusing gusto," putting on an absolutely over-the-top German accent and shouting things like "Hallöchen!" when he pops out of his sub. But Jungle Cruise is still a criminal waste of his talents, and yet another case of the special kind of a disappointment that comes from watching a favorite actor do a terrible movie.

It's certainly not the first such letdown, and it won't be the last. Good actors appear in bad films all the time, and for any number of reasons, ranging from on-set constrictions, poor direction or editing, to "more practical concerns," as film critic Clarisse Loughrey put it to Vice. "Is it a franchise that offers job security? Does the role offer a significant amount of publicity that would help further their career? Is it being shot close to home, where the actor might have young children or family they want to spend time with?" A scarcity of available good roles is a problem, too, particularly for actresses and people of color. Still, sometimes nothing can prepare you for seeing "probably the world's greatest actress" answering the door in the trailer for Greta.

Often this is the case when arthouse, international, or otherwise under-the-radar actors get their "big break" with American audiences in high-budget or franchise films. These are the gigs that are easy to describe as "selling out," like when Oscar Isaac went from Inside Llewyn Davis — which showcased his instinct for tragi-comedic acting — to the Star Wars prequel trilogy, where he plays an exceedingly boring fighter pilot. Longtime indie darling Tessa Thompson likewise jumped to the Marvel Universe for Thor, a franchise she's undoubtedly improved but that still feels inherently limiting for her talents. And let's not forget when the legendary French actress Juliette Binoche was killed off in the first five minutes of Godzilla, a decision that should ban that casting director from ever being allowed to work in the industry again.

Also disappointing, though, are when cases arise of established screen greats signing onto projects that don't seem worth their time, like when Nicole Kidman somehow got talked into playing Jason Momoa's mom in Aquaman. Michael Fassbender, whose breakout role in Hunger is hauntingly memorable, also recently did The Snowman, a movie best remembered as a meme. In truth, a lot of great actors fall into making a rash of bad films from time to time (see: Nicolas Cage before he got good again), but that still doesn't take away from the disappointment of, say, watching Mads Mikkelsen accept a role in Fantastic Beasts 3 when he could be spending his time making more movies like Another Round. These are the movies that bum you out because you know the actors could be more successfully utilized elsewhere, and that they potentially had to give up time on more quality projects for the sake of a better paycheck.

It is perhaps unfair to insist actors turn down lucrative work in order to maintain "artistic purity" though. Rather, the most outrageous cases are when there seems to have been an all-around misunderstanding of an actor's talents by a director or agent. It's how you end up with Dame Judi Dench drenched in digital fur technology for a brief scene in Cats, a reduction of a presence that easily fills both screen and stage when given the room and material to do so. And there's no other explanation for how Matthew McConaughey could be so underutilized in what should have otherwise been a perfect role for him, as the Man in Black in The Dark Tower (and let's briefly recall, and then immediately purge from our memories again, the existence of Serenity). In the worst instances of this, a bad movie will even bring a good actor down to its level, like Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy.

That was nearly the case for Plemons, too, whose villainous antics in Jungle Cruise have all the subtlety of a U-boat torpedo. And while I might wish we had just cut to the part where he reteams with Martin Scorsese for Killers of the Flower Moon, I do wonder if what I love about Plemons as an actor is what he wanted the opportunity to break away from getting typecast as.

But that's the thing about your favorite actors, too — they can do absolute drivel, and you still don't want to take your eyes off them. As much as I cringed, Plemons was the best part of Jungle Cruise, and he had me at hallöchen.

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