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"Pluto Nash,' problem child

 
Published July 20, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

In long-ago April 2000, the Nasdaq was above 4,000, Al Gore was running strong, and The Adventures of Pluto Nash seemed like a bright idea. The star of Pluto Nash, Eddie Murphy, whose Nutty Professor II was about to open, had plenty of sizzle. And Castle Rock Entertainment, best known for the romance of When Harry Met Sally and the heft of The Green Mile, was pleased to begin shooting its first big-budget special-effects film, a gangster comedy set on the moon.

Politics and the market have moved on. But Castle Rock and Warner Bros., its AOL Time Warner sister company that is distributing the movie, are still coming to terms with Pluto Nash.

Postponed twice from its original April 2001 release date, Pluto Nash will finally reach theaters Aug. 16. It is generating unwelcome buzz as a potential megabomb in Hollywood's otherwise golden summer and raising questions about how film companies can handle their problem children when faced with the harsh snap judgments of a know-it-all, Internet-driven fan culture.

Pluto Nash was consigned weeks ago to join the scrap heap by an E! Online poll of movie fans, who chose it as the summer flick most likely to flop. On the chatboards of www.aint-it-cool-news.com, the comedy had already been chosen as a picture to avoid after an anonymous Web review, based on a Pasadena, Calif., test screening, concluded: "My advice _ blow Pluto Nash out of the airlock."

Confronted with a possible turkey, Warner will not try to save money by quietly dumping Pluto into a few theaters before a video release. It will back the movie with a typical advertising budget (which averages about $30-million per release).

But the studio is not taking unusual steps to counter the negativity.

Executives at Castle Rock and Warner declined to discuss their plans for the film. The publicist and agent for Murphy, who is customarily stingy with publicity, referred calls to a Warner representative, who declined requests for an interview.

Certainly, not everyone has given up on Murphy's moon romp, even on the Internet.

On Hollywood's whisper circuit, however, Pluto Nash has become something of a poster child for those who believe that Web-based fan sites, which can generate enormous heat for an anticipated hit, such as Spider-Man, can also unfairly doom any project that experiences a difficult birth.

Harry Knowles, the proprietor of aint-it-cool-news.com, is unapologetic about his supposed power. He laughs off the notion that a five-paragraph review by his unnamed critic can really have damaged a potentially good film.

Be that as it may, the review was clearly a major link in a Rube Goldberg sequence that ultimately put Pluto in a tough spot. People familiar with the film told the New York Times that Castle Rock executives became nervous after poor results from the Pasadena test of a rough version of the movie _ it had no special effects _ led to the Ain't It Cool review, which found its way into a negative blurb in Time magazine.

Having filmed initially in relatively low-cost Montreal and Toronto, executives commissioned extensive, and more expensive, reshoots in Los Angeles. This pushed the budget to a reported $100-million. Worse, it caused the film to miss an anticipated April 2001 release. That set off still more bad Web buzz, even though the reconstructed film is said to have tested well with younger audiences and adequately with adults.

By the time Pluto Nash was ready, early this year, it ran into another problem, this one of Warner's making. The star-heavy studio _ which has Murphy, Robert De Niro, Sandra Bullock and Robin Williams in two or more pictures each this year _ delayed Pluto Nash again, to keep it away from Murphy's Showtime, which was expected to be a major spring hit. Showtime fizzled.