Pluto Nash - Movie Poster
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#2 Box Office Bust: The Adventures of Pluto Nash

Synopsis: On a percentage basis, The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) ranks as Hollywood’s all-time biggest flop. Specifically, the movie lost 96% of its production budget based on a measly $7 million in ticket sales. Its inflation-adjusted loss of $143 million only trails the $184 million loss realized by #3 Bust: Cutthroat Island. Despite having a smaller financial loss on an absolute basis, Pluto Nash ranks as a higher bust in my countdown. First, it had the potential draw of one-time superstar Eddie Murphy. Second, critics absolutely hated it. With a Metacritic score of 12 and Rotten Tomatoes score of 5%, the former SNL star’s movie had the worst critical reviews of any Top 10 Bust.


#2 BOX OFFICE BUST: THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH

Plot: After serving time in prison for smuggling chihuahuas to the moon, Pluto Nash (Eddie Murphy) goes legit by turning his friend’s failing bar into a hip nightclub. In the process, the ex-con attracts the ire of a mobster who wants to turn the club into a casino.

Producers: Martin Bregman, Louis Stroller

Director: Ron Underwood

Writer: Neil Cuthbert

Actors: Eddie Murphy, Rosario Dawson, Randy Quaid, Jay Mohr 

Metacritic score: 12 (extremely negative reviews)

BOX OFFICE NUMBERS*
Movie Release Date Estimated Production Costs** Opening Gross Ticket Sales Theaters Opening Gross / Theater Lifetime Gross Ticket Sales
The Adventures of Pluto Nash Aug 16, 2002 $100 million $2.2 million 2,320 $940 $7.1 million

* Information provided by boxofficemojo.com.

** Information provided by IMDb.

THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH: SET-UP
THE STAR: EDDIE MURPHY

As previously highlighted, The Adventures of Pluto Nash centers around a chihuahua-smuggling ex-con turned nightclub owner. Making the movie even more absurd, it takes place on the moon. Don’t waste any brain cells thinking about these last two sentences. After all, the writer wasted more than enough when coming up with his script. Despite any potential reservations based on this premise, moviegoers might have given it a chance based on the star power of lead actor Eddie Murphy.

While that statement might seem absurd today, it wouldn’t have back then. Of note, Murphy can’t draw an audience like he did over 20 years ago. Adjusted for current ticket prices, his movies from 1982-1994 grossed an average of $200 million. As a reminder, he starred in the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy, both 48 HRS movies, Coming to America and Trading Places during that time frame. Murphy transcended his success on SNL to become one of the most bankable movie stars.

Starting with Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Murphy’s career began to decline. For instance, his movies from 1995-2002 grossed an average of $140 million on an inflation-adjusted basis. That average would be commendable for most Hollywood A-Listers. However, Murphy could have been considered an A+ actor several years earlier. By failing to meet his lofty standards, he faced ridicule from his “friends” at Saturday Night Live.  

LOOK CHILDREN, A FALLING STAR. MAKE A WISH
Pluto Nash - Murphy
Upset by the joke, Murphy avoided SNL’s Studio 8H for over two decades.

Despite the lower box office totals, Murphy still found success with the Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle franchises. In particular, each of the four movies generated over $110 million in domestic ticket sales. As such, the actor showed he still could attract audiences prior to the release of Pluto Nash in 2002. 

THE CO-STARS: RANDY QUAID AND JAY MOHR

SNL alums Randy Quaid and Jay Mohr joined Murphy in the cast. Interestingly, I recognized them in a recent post regarding an all-time ranking of SNL Performers. In that post, I created countdowns for the following categories.

  • Best Performers.
  • Underappreciated Cast Members.
  • Over-Appreciated Cast Members.
  • Under-Utilized Cast Members.
  • Top 10 Busts. 

Of note, Murphy ranked as my #1 all-time greatest performer. To make the selection less subjective, I based it on his average ranking by Rolling Stone, Nerve.com, Grantland, and Business Insider. In essence, I’m not alone with my assessment. The show wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without actors like John Belushi, Dan Akroid, and Gilda Radner. However, it would have ended but for the singular talent of Eddie Murphy.

On the opposite extreme, I honored Quaid as the #1 Bust. As support for the selection, I considered his pre-SNL credits (Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Vacation) and complete failure on the show. As a point of reference, he barely slipped ahead of fellow SNL castmate and Vacation co-star Anthony Michael Hall.

SNL BUSTS
Hands down, the worst cast in SNL history

In between, I ranked Mohr as the #8 Under-Utilized SNL cast member based on his post-SNL success. I clearly valued Mohr’s roles in Jerry Maguire and Gary Unmarried, as well as his stand-up comedy. On the other hand, I discounted his role in Pluto Nash.  

JAY MOHR
Pluto Nash - Jay Mohr
Doesn’t this scene look hilarious?
OTHER “TALENT”

Prior to Pluto Nash, Ron Underwood had build a respectable track record as a Hollywood director. In particular, he directed the Kevin Bacon horror movie Tremors (1990), the Billy Crystal classic City Slickers (1991), and the Robert Downey Jr. tearjerker Heart and Souls (1993). For full disclosure, he also directed Speechless (1994) starring post-Batman Michael Keaton and post-Thelma Geena Davis and Mighty Joe Young (1998) starring pre-superstar Charlize Theron. Unlike other inexperienced directors for Top 10 Bust movies, Underwood had a pedigree. 

DOWNFALL

As a quick summary, Pluto Nash had an A-List lead actor, a reasonably accomplished supporting cast, and a respectable director. So, why did it fail? In one word: hubris. Specifically, everyone went through the motions as if moviegoers wouldn’t recognize a bad script, bad acting, and bad directing. Well, they did.

RIDICULOUS PREMISE

When researching this fiasco, I discovered that the script had suffered through numerous rewrites for more than a decade. If so, I’d hate to know what the original looked like. Choose you favorite screenwriter and I doubt he or she would have spent more than 30 seconds developing the concept. Even the higher-than-a-kite writers at SNL would have pulled the plug on this one.

QUESTIONABLE ACTING

If you saw this movie, you know that the actors went through the motions without even trying. However, I found a quote from Nathan Rabin at AVClub.com which sums it up best. Specifically, he wrote:

Through it all, Murphy maintains a bored expression that broadcasts his ferocious lack of engagement with the material. He seems lost from the onset. His performance is dispirited, and the film takes its cues from his sleepwalking lead turn.

I certainly can’t fault Murphy for cashing whatever sizable check he got for starring in this piece of turd. However, I do question his artistic integrity for going through with it. 

DELAYED RELEASE

Perhaps more than any other indicator, a delayed release by a Hollywood studio serves as a warning for an impending failure. In this case, the studio delayed the release of Pluto Nash for 1 1/2 years. From what I read, nothing happened during the delay to improve the film. With $100 million invested in the film, the studio had to release it. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have. 

SNL CURSE?

I’ll already detailed the numerous SNL connections to the movie. Well, it didn’t stop there. Specifically, recent 17-time SNL host Alec Baldwin had a cameo. While Baldwin has perfected his Trump impersonation, he failed to perfect playing a mob boss in Pluto Nash. In fact, his overly stereotypical take on the role reminded me of 15-time SNL host Steve Martin’s pathetic attempt at portraying a mobster in My Blue Heaven (1990). 

Given all of the connections, The Adventures of Pluto Nash should have been an SNL skit instead. The skit certainly would have bombed. However, it would have saved over $100 million and 1 1/2 hours for anyone unfortunate enough to have seen it.

POSTSCRIPT

I started watching SNL during Eddie Murphy’s glory years. Based on the show, I bought his album Comedian. I expected to be entertained, but he absolutely blew me away. I must have listened to the album 10 times in the first week alone. As a white kid in an affluent community, I had nothing in common with Murphy. However, he certainly could make me laugh. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to say that in more than two decades. 

As a quick aside, my short list of the greatest stand-up comedians includes: #1 Richard Pryor; #2 George Carlin; #3 Chris Rock; and #4 Eddie Murphy. While I’d like to offer a Top 10 (or even a Top 5) list, these four stand out among the rest. In other words, they encompass my comedic Mt. Rushmore. Too bad Murphy doesn’t perform stand-up anymore because he would still kill it.

Instead, Murphy (like Rock) has shown a weakness to sell out for a payday. In case you doubt me, just watch Pluto Nash or any of the Grown Up movies. Apparently, Murphy recently signed on to do Coming to America 2. Somehow, I just can’t imagine it being any good. Still, he’ll collect his $20 million paycheck and not think twice about it.

As explained in previous posts, actors can recover from their failures. Specifically, moviegoers can be quite forgiving. In contrast, Hollywood executives have a long-term memory with respect to behind-the-camera failures. In the case of Pluto Nash, writer Neil Cuthbert never earned another IMDB credit.

Similarly, director Ron Underwood never got another chance to work on a Hollywood movie. At least he has earned directing credits for some highly regarded TV shows. Specifically, he has directed episodes of hit shows like: Ugly Betty, Heroes, Desperate Housewives, Burn Notice, Castle, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Nashville, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Quantico. Still, I’m sure he regrets ever getting involved with Pluto Nash.

#2 BOX OFFICE BUST: THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH
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