I blame Mel Brooks.
I kept thinking of Brooks’s The Producers while watching The Nutcracker in 3D. He told the story of two Broadway hustlers (Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) who decide to bilk their investors by making the worst play of all time. I consider it the funniest movie ever made… in part because it truly understands what the very worst in creative expression can do. There’s a hypnotic fascination to the truly awful: a sense of wonder unmatched in all of human creation. And when you are certain – as that stunned audience in front of “Springtime for Hitler” was – that you truly are watching the worst of the worst, a strange sort of joy emerges. This is something rare and unique, an experience you may never feel again. This is magical, in its own twisted way, and this is without a doubt something you will never forget.
And just as something so incredibly awful exists, it stands to reason that its polar opposite must exist as well; that a movie out there somewhere is as incredible as this film is inept; that the wide-eyed surprise we feel can stem from perfect brilliance rather than perfect incompetence. The Nutcracker in 3D promises this, even as it leaves us shocked at how one project can go so completely disastrously wrong. Is this the living incarnation of The Producers’ scheme? As I watched it all unfold, some dark, horrible part of me believed that it was: that star Nathan Lane had somehow taken his Broadway turn in Mostel’s role to heart and rooked a phalanx of naïve investors into creating this… this thing. I’ve been reviewing movies for 25 years – 12 of them as a professional – and I like to think I’ve seen my share of bad ones.
This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.
So much goes so wrong so quickly that you scarcely know how it all got started. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Chernobyl: a smoking crater revealing new and ever more horrible abominations at every turn. Each time, you think it’s touched bottom. Each time, it gleefully proves you wrong… to the point where you actually look forward to the next toxic bonbon it drops into your lap. What will it be? An inappropriate Holocaust motif? A Jewish man delivering Christmas presents? A creepy CGI nutcracker morphing joint-by-joint into a real boy in a way that makes you reject the concept of a just and loving God? It could be anything, and the results are often worse than whatever your fevered imagination believes possible. They march upon us relentlessly, aided by the hubris that only a talented filmmaker can generate and a budget more suited to a summer blockbuster than a misbegotten children’s movie.
Actual name actors signed on as well, including Lane, John Turturro and Elle Fanning as our plucky heroine. We can only assume that they wanted to be a part of the classic Tchaikovsky tale in some way, not (as my darkest fears hold) that the producers had serious blackmail material on them. Tim Rice – TIM MOTHERFUCKING RICE – wrote the lyrics to the film’s copious songs (presumably in a fog of resentment and egg nog fumes) then crammed them so torturously into Tchaikovsky’s music that Amnesty International has a file on it.
That may be the final damning piece of the puzzle: the bona fide masterpiece at this film’s heart. It provides a leg up on less highbrow Christmas disasters like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, since they at least, could hide behind a low budget or shakier material. The Nutcracker in 3D has no such excuses. The fig leaves have all been stripped away, leaving a legion of impossibly wrong-headed decisions for us to gaze at in horrified revulsion.
Director Andrey Konchalovskiy starts with the wafer-thin narrative from the ballet, then pads it with the Holocaust. I’m not speaking figuratively. The rat king’s (Turturro) minions actually dress in stormtrooper uniforms as they march into Bavarian capitals and lead resistors off to the ovens. (You heard me.) That’s bad enough, but The Nutcracker brazenly doubles down by dressing Turturro in an Andy Warhol wig and black unitard the whole time. Therein lies the film’s twisted genius. In one fell swoop, it goes from distasteful (genocide in a children’s movie?!) to off-the-rails insane… even without including the giant Bond-villain shark kept in Turturro’s lair.
Every aspect of the production engages in such brinksmanship, frosting turd after glorious turd until we can hardly tell where the shit ends and the shitty add-ons begin. The rats march into a Bavarian kingdom in the 1920s, deposing its prince and cursing him to life in a wooden body. The Nutcracker Prince (or “NC” for short) then finds his way into the hands of Albert Einstein (Lane), who sings a horrible song called “It’s Relative” before dumping the hideous thing upon his goddaughter (Ella Fanning). Again, an already bad idea becomes breathtakingly worse by grotesque embellishment: giving a Jewish physicist a prime role in a Christmas tale, then winking at us about it as if it’s scored some kind of creative coup. (You could argue that Einstein eventually became an atheist… but how is that any better? And why would his family be Christian? Questions like these haunt you throughout the film. If you seriously expect any answers, I salute your dogged optimism.)
Think it can’t get worse? Think again. The narrative sees Fanning helping NC overthrow the rat king and restore his kingdom… using an atom bomb that Uncle Albert develops with the tacit support of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Yulia Visotskaya) dancing around the girl’s Christmas tree. Brain melted yet? How about the classy shot of a little black drummer boy standing next to a giant clown? Turturro’s incestuous cooing over his rat queen mother (Frances De La Teur)? Or the embarrassingly phony CGI slathered all over the grimy industrial landscape and belched at us in achingly unconvincing 3D?
Any one of these elements – any tiny shred – would be enough to land it on the short list of true cinematic disasters. Put them all together, and they become an exquisite jewel of Suck, the kind unseen since the days of Ed Wood (who could at least claim he had no money to make his abominations). It’s flawless in its flaws, without a single redeeming element to obscure its idealized awfulness. I treasure this film as a singular experience, a black hole so deep that not even hope can escape. MST lovers and fans of unspeakable kitsch take note (we’re counting the moments until the Rifftrax boys discover it). The Nutcracker in 3D sets a new standard, as unshakable as the fundaments of the Earth. As Brooks so keenly understood, there’s something irresistible about something so hideous. You can watch it over and over again, loving it for all the wrong reasons and resting in the secret knowledge that nothing can possibly outdo it. Somewhere, Brooks is smiling: his greatest conceit has come to life. Whether we’re better or worse for it is strictly a matter of opinion.