NORTH (1994): THE WEIRDNESS OF A COLOSSAL FLOP – A CASE STUDY

When the Wizard of Weirdness benevolently gave each of us regular contributors the opportunity to pitch one movie onto the List—with no veto—the Present Author got away with Nothing But Trouble (1991). It’s a controversial pick, for sure. My reasoning was, why pick a movie that was probably comfortably fated to end up on the List sooner or later? You get an opportunity, you take it. There were a few shocked gasps and Greg, notably, nearly lost his lunch. For what it’s worth, the Good Bad Flicks podcast recently vindicated my fanny right out of purgatory on that movie. Me, Good Bad Flicks, and everybody on the set but and Chevy Sourpuss Chase stand alone in our crusade, even if apologetically.

Still from North (1994)

But it could have been worse. Throughout my time in the Weird Vineyards, I’ve had a devil on my left shoulder digging his pitchfork into my clavicle, maniacally whispering the name of JUST ONE MOVIE into my ear. “Nominate it, it’ll be hilarious!” When that veto-proof list slot came up, the screaming from my sinister side became deafening, but I resisted. Since the List is now closed, and I finally feel it’s safe to mention the name of the movie that no one on this site has dared to utter…

Got your HazMat suits zipped up? Got your clothespins on your nose? Got your handy jug of brain bleach ready? I shall prepare to utter its vile name. This is going to be good. This movie had an identical budget to Nothing But Trouble, and fared even a little bit worse. It’s a one-word title. It’s even a monosyllabic title. In fact, it’s a title that just so happens to be the name of a pretty famous primary compass direction.

North (1994) is one of the most notoriously spectacular failures in box office history. And make no mistake, this is NOT a List recommendation! North is just too terrible.

Like Nothing But Trouble, North had a jaw-dropping line-up of splurged comedic talent, a runaway budget, and a high concept that was a unique take on a familiar structure. It should have been a hit. So should Skidoo or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but these things happen.

Yet when you think about weird movies, you can’t long avoid North. How can you ignore ’s tush on a billboard, Jason Alexander as a pants-obsessed haberdasher, Kathy Bates as the last person to appear in blackface and have her career survive, Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire as a mom-and-pop duo performing a Texas hoedown about the death of their son, a Citizen Kane homage with a kid school newspaper editor making Jon Lovitz his suck-up toady, Alan Arkin as a manic motormouth judge holding court in a furniture store, Abe Vigoda getting put out to sea on an iceberg, and in multiple roles playing… nah, you’ll never believe me. All this, directed by the man who gave the world beloved classics like This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride.

The premise seems harmless enough: a kid divorces his parents and goes off to find new ones, adopting to one family after another as he travels all over the world, but ends up realizing “there’s no place like home.” Doesn’t that sound exactly like something or would have cooked up? There’s even a side-plot where the kid’s act has global ramifications on nuclear family politics around the world, landing him at the center of controversy. A little over-loaded, but still gives it room for great satire.

You also can’t avoid the review from the late, great Roger Ebert, who showed admirable taste for some of the kinds of movies we honor here. That’s North’s greatest fame claim: the movie that drove Roger Ebert to abandon all decorum and bellow at the camera in thermonuclear fury. Not only did he “hated” x 5 this movie, but it drove him to write a book, published in 2000, named after a line in his North review: “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie“. Weird movies should provoke extreme reactions, should they not?

North is such an anomaly, it should be cataloged alongside Fermat’s Last Theorem (not the movie) as a mathematical proof that establishes an important lesson that defies all but the most stalwart minds in comprehending it. How can a movie go so wrong? What were they thinking? What hellspawned pact with Cthulhu could have pitched so many important names upon this funeral pyre? Whatever it is, the supernatural forces at the whirling center of its evil sphincter must have something to do with it being a comedy. Whenever a huge bomb gets nominated for the List, it’s almost always some kind of comedy.

“Comedy” is what this movie has in short supply. It tries relentlessly, but the best it gets is silly, and at its worst it is mean-spirited, offensive, and vulgar. All of it takes place in a rotten world filled with lousy people and dunked in withering cynicism. Now we come to the biggest flaw: how do we show that each family the kid tries to live with isn’t a good fit? Why, by picking every stereotype of race and culture around the world, of course! So the kid couldn’t live with the Mennonite family because he got grossed out by the family’s huge hook noses dipping into the borscht! (Note: That scene is not an actual scene from the movie, but the actual scenes are really that bad.)

And that’s where those of you wondering “Why does everybody hate this movie?” get your answer when you watch it out of curiosity: it’s misaimed in every possible direction. The attempts at jokes are not only tasteless, but smug. It wants to be a kid’s movie, but it’s far too dark and crass. It wants to be a sly satire for adults, but it’s too much of a silly mash-up of rejected Hallmark cards for that—not to mention that the world wasn’t crying out for a satire of parenting, anyway. Straw man after straw man is set up and mowed down, failing to land even a coincidental point. To stop it from drifting into coherence, every ten minutes Bruce Willis pops out of the refrigerator (playing the jello this time) as he whisks the kid off to another family. (Note: That scene is not an actual scene from the movie, but the actual scenes are really that bad.)

Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow is that this movie was adapted from a book by children’s author Alan Zweibel, whose previous resume included “Saturday Night Live,” and who also adapted the screenplay and appeared in a cameo, conveniently cutting us off from a “lost in interpretation” excuse. What was he thinking, either? Nobody apparently envisioned how the finish product would come off. Even Rob Reiner, to this very day, defends this movie as something he loved doing, with some of his best jokes. That’s right, Meathead, playing opposite Archie Bunker, would go on to laugh at Frodo’s crack. What a change of Hobbit! (Note: That joke is not an actual joke from the movie, but the actual jokes are really that bad.)

Everybody in North is so confident in what they’re doing! You sit through every minute watching big name talent under an evil hoodoo, producing not just crap, but polished, gold-plated, mahogany-fixtured crap. You rarely get a chance to see such a magnificent alabaster-assed disaster. After your viewing, your chief memory is the smell of your palm while your fingers fight to obstruct your vision.

The nut of the matter is that Roger Ebert, alongside all those “hated”s, pinned the guts of North to the board with the adjective “audience-insulting.” This movie was, indeed, made for an imaginary audience named “those people out there.” This mythical audience must have wanted something less than Rob Reiner’s best; he also defended the movie as an intentional breather from the more serious efforts he’d made previously. If this phantom crowd showed up, they apparently were invisible, and dodged the ticket booth on the way in. Wouldn’t it be more upsetting if the movie had been a huge hit?

North is not weird for what it is, so much as for the fact that it happened at all.

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