When you watch as many films as I do, you get used to badness. A truly bad film can be a fascinating viewing experience, like a photo negative that shows everything that can and will go wrong in the very expensive, incredibly time-consuming world of Hollywood and beyond. Every movie requires ridiculous amounts of people working their hardest under smothering circumstances and the expectations of countless fans, scouring the internet for a smidgen of news. That’s partly why it’s so disappointing when you finally see something you’ve waited years for and it barely rises above the level of ‘meh’. At least absolute chaos is entertaining, and the industry seems impossibly dedicated to repeating its mistakes as many times as it can get away with. It may not be great art to keep hiring the same people with proven track records of mediocrity, but as long as the money keeps rolling in, who the hell cares?
I have a good understanding of how the industry works, and I know that the utopian ideal of a creative meritocracy is complete fantasy, yet I will never get over the crushing reality that is the continuing success of Akiva Goldsman. The mere mention of his name attached to promising projects fills me with the weight of disappointment. When it was announced that he’d be taking over the reins of Star Trek: Discovery from TV idol Bryan Fuller, it felt like a cruel joke, like the worst possible outcome you could imagine for such a show. I will be able to succinctly explain cold fusion before I can ever understand how Goldsman not only gets paid millions of dollars to write movies but convinced his esteemed colleagues in the Academy to award him with a freaking Oscar. The Razzies mount up, the reviews seldom rise above ambivalent, but Goldsman is still there cashing the cheques and dipping his toes into every piece of source material you love. I mean, did you see the reviews for The Dark Tower?
Hollywood is saturated with ‘just good enough’ people. It’s an industry where you can go from hairdresser to Oscar winning producer (hi, Jon Peters), and there are plenty of terrible creatives behind the camera spoiling the things you love who you will never hear about. Scripts themselves don’t tend to be one-person shows, and will go through re-writes, punch-ups and doctoring. Carrie Fisher of all people was one of the field’s most wanted script doctors, polishing up everything from The Wedding Singer to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Even picking on a screenwriter feels a tad mean given their place on the movie pecking order, somewhere between key grip and animal trainer.
Yet even knowing all that, there’s something about Goldsman that cannot help but inspire derision. Few people of his stature have their name attached to so many major projects, have received such critical mauling for their work in them, and still been granted the opportunity to do more damage.
Much of Goldsman’s career is defined by good connections and even better timing. His first major screenplay credit (shared with Robert Getchell), The Client, was an adaptation of the John Grisham novel, directed by fellow critical punching bag Joel Schumacher. It was generally well received and made over $117m. Granted, this was at a point where Grisham was the biggest writer in the world and adaptations of his work were raking in the dollars. Not even Joel Schumacher could spoil that, and so a partnership was born, as the pair would reunite for the 1996 Grisham movie A Time To Kill, another box office success with respectable reviews.
Never mind that, in the interim period, Goldsman had his first flop, Silent Fall. It all weighed out evenly enough. Silent Fall is of that unfortunate genre of thriller where autism is used insensitively as a plot device. Nothing about the film worked, much less the script, and it made back around a tenth of its $30m budget. Roger Ebert called the plot ‘torturously constructed’, which seems to be a common mark of Goldsman’s work: Structuring and plotting that veers between nonsensical and just lazy. Plot holes? Try a veritable highway of bottomless pits.
The next stop for Goldsman was the golden goose of Batman himself. After Tim Burton had helped to establish the franchise and legitimise comic book movies as a major means of artistic and financial gain, the studio knew that this was a pit they could potentially mine for the rest of our time on earth. Warner Bros. believed that Batman Returns, Burton’s follow-up to the first film, failed to out-gross its predecessor because of its darker, phantasmogorical tone, which put off families and younger children. To ease these fears, Schumacher’s films are more inspired by the 1960s TV series and that era of the comic books - colourful, slyly self-aware, the Batman of the flower power years. That was the intent, anyway. Batman Forever isn’t a great film, but it’s reasonably watchable. It’s broader, brighter and entirely aimed at selling toys to kids. Every performance is amped up to the maximum limit of gurning, and the script (which Goldsman wrote with Lee and Janet Scott Batchler) is like a pun-cannon working on overload.
Working under the studio mandate of ‘dumb it down and sell it to the dumb kids’ isn’t the best environment for creative flourishment. Then again, many writers have done far better work under far worse circumstances. Giving Goldsman the benefit of the doubt that this was really the best Batman movie he could have made at the time, and given that it did make money and sell a lot of plastic action figures, having him return for Batman and Robin would, in an abstract sense, seem reasonable. Having said that, reason doesn’t enter the equation when it comes to Batman and Robin, a movie that redefined the concept of ‘so bad it’s good.’
This is no mere pun machine of a movie - this is the Tesseract of puns, each deeper and more mind-boggling than the last. Every Mr Freeze ice pun is exquisite torture, somewhere between bad children’s birthday party entertainer and drag queen revue. Half the time, you can’t believe what you’re hearing and are convinced it’s all some twisted social experiment on the futile exercise of artistic expression in Hollywood. It’s not, of course. It’s just hack work. It killed the Batman franchise on the big screen for several years until Christopher Nolan came along, got Goldsman a Razzie nomination (shockingly his only one, and he didn’t even win it), and sank any hopes of further comic book movies for the time being.
Goldsman, to his credit, did come to some kind of realisation as to why his work on the film was significantly subpar. “I sort of got lost. I was writing away from what I knew. It’s a little like a cat chasing its tail. Once you start making movies that are less than satisfying, you start to lose your opportunity to make the satisfying ones. People are not serving them up to you, saying, ‘You’re the guy we want for this.’” That seems candid enough, but people were still giving Goldsman work, and major work at that. The next year, Lost in Space was released, meeting a similarly dismissive critical and commercial response. Practical Magic has a nostalgic warmth to it, but doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny (it was also a big flop). Goldsman’s style, if it can be called that, is all over these movies: Perfunctory dialogue, plodding plotting, characters sketched out hazily and with no emotional centre, and sometimes just plain lazy writing. There are leaps of logic in Lost in Space that defy human comprehension. It manages to be even cheesier than the TV show it’s based on, but completely lacking the sincerity. Like many of Goldsman’s films, watching it becomes a chore.
All of this in the context of blockbuster and mainstream crowd-pleasing cinema, which is mostly Goldsman’s domain, is one thing. Now apply that to a concerted effort to garner prestige. Take all of that ineptitude and insert it into a narrative tailor-made to appeal to archaic notions of worthiness. That brings us to A Beautiful Mind, which may be the single-worst Best Picture winning film that isn’t called Crash. Everything about this soulless biopic is engineered to extract tears and awards, but that still does little to explain its baffling success. Every decision it makes is either exhaustingly predictable or incomprehensible in its lack of logic. It’s a story where subtlety does not enter the dictionary. Everything is turned up more and more to the point where you can’t help but look for the bat-nipples. At least that would be fun. A Beautiful Mind is too tedious for fun.
Bad films win Oscars all the time. Merit only enters the equation of the Academy when it’s convenient to do so. A film made explicitly to get an Oscar for Ron Howard - a man who would aid and abet Goldsman’s continuing domination as much as Joel Schumacher - was always going to appeal to the right voters. Still, in a year where the competition included Ghost World, In The Bedroom, and the first Lord of the Rings movie, Goldsman’s win not only feels baffling; it’s strikingly undeserved. Akiva Goldsman doesn’t have a Razzie, but he does have an Oscar. Oh what a world…
To be fair to Goldsman - shocking, I know - not everything he has done has been bad. Cinderella Man, another Howard collaboration, works the wheels a little too hard to evoke Frank Capra but it’s otherwise a strong sports biopic; he has several credits as a writer and director on Fringe, including some popular episodes; The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons aren’t good but they’re knowingly cheesy pot boilers that make excruciating source material easy to digest. That doesn’t justify the $3m he got for writing the former, but at least he was fairly compensated for having to repeatedly read renowned author Dan Brown.
It took until 2014 for Goldsman to make his directorial debut, and he aimed big with his choice of source material: Imagine an epic romantic drama spanning decades and melding with fantasy and an epic battle of heaven and hell; a beloved novel previously set to be filmed by Martin Scorsese, but it proved too tough for the maestro; a story of impeccable earnestness that would offer a misunderstood creator the chance to show just how passionate he was about his craft. Say what you want about Winter’s Tale, but it doesn’t do anything by halves.
Winter’s Tale is amazing in its sheer strangeness. Nothing works but everything is engrossing as a result. Everyone involved turned up on set each morning and completely committed to this grandiose tale of love, flying horses, and devil Will Smith. It’s super easy to mock, but you never really want to because it’s clear that Goldsman wholeheartedly believes in this story. He loves this circus and is desperately working to ensure you do too, and I must confess, I wanted to believe. There is nothing like Winter’s Tale out there in terms of no-holds-barred earnestness. It’s hilarious but oddly heart-warming as a result. How can you walk away unchanged from a film where Colin Farrell fucks a woman to death?
Following Winter’s Tale, which spectacularly flopped at the box office, Goldsman returned to writing weak tea mediocrity, bouncing from forgettable YA adaptations (The 5th Wave) and forgotten horror sequels (Rings). At one point, he was attached to a writer’s room intended to continue the depressingly never-ending Transformers series, but he’s since dropped out. Following The Dark Tower and Star Trek: Discovery, Goldsman will return to the director’s chair with Stephanie, a supernatural horror film that will be written by someone else.
I’m still not entirely sure how he continues to get headlining work with the frequency that he does: I imagine his work ethic is admirable, that he’s adept at working to tight deadlines and studio mandates, that he gets on well with the bigwigs in a tight-knit industry, and maybe he’s just a super nice dude. The truth is, as much as his work is terrible and defies explanation, I’m not even sure he’s the worst screenwriter in Hollywood, especially not when Allan Loeb, the man behind Collateral Beauty and The Dilemma, keeps getting work. Poor Akiva Goldsman - he’s not even good enough to be the worst.