It’s certainly a good problem to have. In an era where the modest budget Hollywood drama is extinct, wrangling a lot of talent for a film focusing on a radical movement from the ‘60s seems like the best method to get it in theaters.
But can too many stars ruin a movie experience?
That’s what kept nagging at me throughout watching Robert Redford’s latest directing effort (and first leading role in close to eight years), "The Company You Keep." Along with Redford, playing a former member of the Weather Underground activist group, there’s also Shia LaBeouf as the pesky local newspaper reporter hot on Redford’s tale; Stanley Tucci as the gruff newspaper editor suffocated by cutbacks and layoffs; Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins and Nick Nolte as fellow Weather Undergrounders; Chris Cooper as Redford’s brother; Brit Marling as LaBeouf’s love interest; and Terrence Howard and Anna Kendrick as FBI agents trying to catch Redford.
It got to the point where I was less interested in the plot and more fascinated (or distracted) by what star would come into frame next.
I’m sure there are people who will see "The Company You Keep" (which is now playing in limited release) for the fact that these names I listed are all in one movie, but by its end I couldn’t help but think if I would have liked this more if there were fewer stars in it, and how challenging it must be to make something good with such a large roster of talent.
There are some great ones. I can think back as a kid watching "It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World" and loving that I could see stars as diverse as Spencer Tracy, Sid Caesar and Ethel Merman all trading lines in the same movie. Recently, "Ocean’s Eleven" (lump in the sequels too, if you wish) proved that with a strong and intriguing story you can have big stars and make it work. However, there are a lot of movies that tried this formula and got disastrous results.
Who could forget the star-bloated "North," Rob Reiner’s feel-good comedy starring then-child actor Elijah Wood as a boy searching the globe for new parents. If you don’t recall it you may remember Roger Ebert’s legendary review. Here’s a little taste: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
Then there’s the forgettable "Orange Country." Released in 2002 and starring Colin Hanks and Jack Black as two brothers with completely different priorities, stars like Kevin Kline, Catherine O’Hara, John Lithgow, Lily Tomlin and Chevy Chase are sprinkled throughout. You could only image, the studio in a huff that they have a stinker on its hands, jump to the rolodex in hopes that we’d be distracted by the memorable faces than pay attention to the story.
And I can go on: "Movie 43," "Nine," "Valentine’s Day" and "New Year’s Eve" (same movie, different holiday).
But how can a star-heavy film become more like "The Thin Red Line" and less like "Cannonball Run"?
As I mentioned already, I think story is key. "Glengarry Glen Ross" or "12 Angry Men" are amazing because of the writing, then the acting in all the roles only elevates it. You might be saying, “well, those were originally stage works” (or in the case of "12 Angry Men," a teleplay). Alright, how about Woody Allen’s films. Often with a larger cast, often full of A-list talent, but because Allen knows how to fit certain actors in certain parts, the watching experience of his films becomes less of a who’s who and more of a true appreciation of the characters as a whole.
You can get away with a weaker story if you’re doing a comedy (though we have already mentioned some exceptions). Sometime we all just want to laugh and watch a bunch of great talents make it happen. "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" fits this scenario. The scene between the rival news channels, a la "West Side Story," the enjoyment just increases every time a new star joins the fray.
And one of the most anticipated movies of the spring, "This Is the End," stars almost every comedic actor you can think of. The fact that there are so many stars is the fun of it.
So can a movie have too many stars? Frankly, you can make as many cases for it as you can against it. The main thing is when a movie has a large roster of known actors it can’t there has to be more to it then the names on the poster. If the powers that be on the movie understand they have to be clever about it and position the stars so there’s some substance to their role in the film. That’s the kind of experience I find memorable.