WHEN I WAS in sixth grade—a year in which I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to music, specifically the three Duran Duran albums then available—I had a flash of inspiration: an invention that would play whatever song I wanted, a sort of broad multi-artist shuffle play, without me having to choose the track or the artist, or to change the cassette or CD…and the choice would always be exactly what I wanted to hear.
What I envisioned back in 1986 was nothing less than the iPod.
I mention this not to draw attention to my own (inescapably limited) genius for innovation—I am no Steve Jobs, although I would have known not to have the mouse input on the left-hand side of the Macbook—but to suggest that I do have a track record, albeit an unprovable one, of knowing what gizmos might be available in the glorious future. Ray Kurzweil, eat your heart out.
So take note, Sergey Brin, Steve Ballmer, Mark Zuckerberg, and friends: here is a completely impractical, technologically impossible, but totally awesome invention I’d like to see in production in my lifetime: The Role Play 3000. What this incredibly sophisticated device would do is replace an actor in any existing movie with another actor of your choosing.
Take a deep breath and begin to process how cool this would be.
You could have a Goldfinger-era Sean Connery play 007 in every Bond film, as God intended, and kick Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig to the paving stones. You could see how Sean Young would have been as Catwoman in the Batman flick. You could do a thorough de-Morgan Freemaning of your movie collection. Or, if you were in the mood for a chuckle, or wanted to indulge your masochistic tendencies, you could have Casablanca with Dane Cook and Jessica Simpson, Pretty Woman with Snooki, Tyler Perry’s Citizen Kane.
The possibilities are limitless…such as casting Limitless with Gilbert Gottfried instead of Bobby DeNiro. Or Debbie Does Dallas with Debbie Reynolds. Or using the “replace all” feature to swap Jake Gyllenhaal with Ryan Gosling in every movie in which the former appears (although the Gosling/Heath Ledger love scene in the updated Brokeback Mountain would make Magic Mike look like Mike & Molly).
But the impetus for the Role Play 3000 is not to goof around, or to replace porn stars with Hollywood legends (although that would certainly be fun), but to correct those films in dire need of correction. Films that function perfectly, except for the sore-thumb performance of a single lackluster or poorly-cast actor.
Here are seven films that would be significantly improved with a little help from the Role Play 3000:
1. The Wizard of Oz
The eponymous role was written for vaudevillian W.C. Fields, but the legendary comedian demanded too much money, so the part went instead to Frank Morgan. Nothing against Morgan, who delivers a fine performance, but Fields was an American icon who is now on the verge of being forgotten. It’s a shame generations of children could not have thrilled to watch him behind the wizard’s curtain.
2. Almost Famous
Kate Hudson won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Penny Lane, the muse/groupie who ensorcels everyone she meets (note: Exhibit 4,356,548,824 in the “The Oscars are irrelevant” argument). At the time, rumors abounded that Cameron Crowe, the writer/director, had to shoot untold miles of film to get enough halfway-decent footage of her to actually use. Hats off to Crowe for his smoke-and-mirrors trick, but it wasn’t enough. After all, this film features standout performances by some of the best actors in Hollywood: Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Lee, Billy Crudup. Fairuza Balk delivers a monologue that absolutely kills. Hudson? I’m sure they had trouble coming up with an Oscar clip. What’s worse, the great Sarah Polley was supposed to play Penny Lane, and backed out for who knows what reason. Sarah Polley! Almost Famous is a fantastic movie as is. With Polley instead of Hudson, it would have been an all-time classic.
3. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
On the subject of Keanu Reeves’s acting range, my friend Brady once observed: “Keanu can only play two things: Good Ted and Evil Ted. He’s one or the other in every film he’s ever made.” Brady makes a good point: Keanu has his limits. When you’re looking for an actor who projects earnestness, an actor to root for, Reeves is the guy. A period piece in which he must employ a British accent? Not so much. Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the vampire is underrated, I think: it’s visually stunning; Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, and Cary Elwes are superb; the score is still used in horror movies to this day; and as an unapologetic Gen X booster, I cannot not love Winona Ryder. But the instant Reeves appears in the carriage and asks, “Is the caah-sul fah?” the movie devolves to camp. Which is a pity. Sadie Frost is terrific in the film as Lucy Westenra; how about we replace Reeves with the man she’d go on to marry, then-unknown Jude Law?
4. Chasing Amy
As a writer of jokes, Kevin Smith is pretty good. As a designer of plot, he’s sub-par; it’s no wonder his Superman screenplay was shot down. As a director, he leaves much to be desired. I recently re-watched this, his best film, and the scenes flowed like this: 1) two people talking in a record store; 2) two people talking on a swingset; 3) two people talking while throwing darts; 4) two people talking at a hockey game. No action, no purpose to the places in which the scenes were set. Because the dialogue is snappy, this is almost excusable, except for one glaring problem: Joey Lauren Adams, the female lead, cannot act her way out of a wet paper bag. And this is hard to ignore. Part of this is on Smith the Director, for not coaxing a better performance out of his then-girlfriend—incidentally, if you ever need evidence that Ben Affleck is a really good actor, here it is; the guy is basically winging it on one take with very little direction, and his performance is pretty terrific—but most of the blame falls squarely on Joey Lauren Adams. Replace her with…well, anyone, and this movie, which also features a decent turn by the always-funny Jason Lee, would be many times better.
5. Pulp Fiction
Vinnie Vega and Jules accidentally shoot that kid and summon the cleaner, Winston Wolf. Wolf shows up and describes himself thus: “I think fast, I talk fast.” The problem is, he doesn’t. Harvey Keitel is a fine actor who is adept at many things, but rapid-fire badinage is not one of them. He simply can’t talk fast; he’s not physically able to do it. So why have him in this role? I know Keitel was instrumental in getting Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s first film, made, and as Mr. White, he was outstanding. But Winston Wolf is better played by Mr. Pink. Swap Keitel for Steve Buschemi (Harvey can handle being a waiter) and Pulp Fiction becomes a less-uneven masterpiece.
6. Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones
All things considered—the amount of time it took to make, the funds at George Lucas’s disposal, the fact that any writer or actor alive would have chopped off his or her hand, Vader-style, to be involved, and, of course, the galaxy-far-far-away high expectations—the first installment of the new trilogy, The Phantom Menace, is the worst movie ever made. This, the second, is almost as wretched. One of the many reasons is that Anakin Skywalker, the fallen angel who will morph into Darth Vader—the centerpiece of the whole fucking double trilogy—is played by relative newcomer Hayden Christensen. Christensen has since developed into a fine actor, in the same way Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliff has. But this is Vader! We need a movie star! In the early 90s, rumors swirled that Tom Cruise was being considered to play the young Lord Vader (a decision trilogy fanboys lamented in much the same way Anne Rice did his casting as Lestat). Whatever you think of Cruise and his much-hyped baggage, the dude’s a movie star. Would he have saved this piece of shit? Probably not. But as with Interview with a Vampire, he would have at least given us a reason to watch.
7. Apocalypse Now
The walking (or rather streaming) definition of a flawed masterpiece. Trancendent performances by Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and especially Robert Duvall. Perfect use of “The End” in the opening sequence. Brilliant concept, moving Heart of Darkness to Vietnam. But it ends with a whimper because Marlon Brando doesn’t deliver. The casting decision makes sense; when you have Duvall and Hopper already in place, you need Kurtz to overpower everyone on the screen; you need an enormous presence. And in 1971, no movie star was as enormous (in more ways than one) as Brando. But he’s just too weird, too out there, to make it work. Who would replace him? Good question. Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino…I’m sure sure who would be better. And that, of course, is the beauty of the Role Play 3000!