2002: When the Rock Went Hollywood and Movie Stars Still Ruled


With no box office to sift through during this pandemic, we’re making do, once again, with old numbers. And the top movies for the weekend of April 19, 2002, are loaded with stars. That’s worth mentioning because it wouldn’t happen now on any weekend, really. We used to rely on these people to shine in anything — gold or crap, in January, December or July (although, with January, a real star should never want his bluff called). That weekend was loaded with stars in the good and godawful but mostly the so-so.

The so-so part matters. It’s an ideal test of your love of a star and to feel how much a star loves you. Does Morgan Freeman need to play a dusty lawyer in a stinky courtroom thriller? Ask his cable bill. But if he must, he’ll give it more sizzle than grizzle — for you.

That weekend was also among the last in which most of the entries were middle-of-the-road star vehicles hatched from original screenplays (or taken from novels) and never franchised. Well, movies built around popular actors were their own kind of franchise. We liked seeing their same-old-same-old get a new plot and co-stars. By the 2000s, that kind of same-old was in its twilight. On the horizon was a major reversal, in which the character (plucked from comic books, TV, music, older movies) so superseded the star that actors weren’t starring, they were doing karaoke.

That weekend in 2002 our curiosity remained intact. We still wanted to see Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck terrorize each other until they become better people. We were still paying to watch Jodie Foster outlast the thieves who’d broken into her house; were mildly curious about Detective Sandra Bullock outsmarting murderers; and were completely commanded by Disney (a star brand) to behold washed-up Dennis Quaid pitch, at last, in a Major League game. That one was called “The Rookie.” And the top movie that weekend had a rookie, too. He was called the Rock. Indeed, Dwayne Johnson had been transplanted from professional wrestling to Hollywood for “The Scorpion King.”

He was new that weekend, and so, to some extent, was Affleck, who was scaling his first leading-man peak. They were putting him in everything back then (blockbusters, romantic comedies, franchise action), and he never seemed to want to be there. I respect whatever deal he and Matt Damon struck to make things work on their own after “Good Will Hunting,” but he’s always seemed kind of lonely as a result, leaning into characters who need someone to show them how a moral compass works.

In “Changing Lanes,” that’s Jackson. He’s an alcoholic insurance salesman on his way to a child-custody hearing in Manhattan when Affleck’s Mercedes swipes into his sad mule of a Corolla. Jackson is ready to exchange information, but Affleck tries to write him a check. He’s on his way to court to represent his Wall Street firm in a bid to defraud a dead millionaire’s estate. But when he abandons Jackson, he also accidentally leaves behind an important legal file. Jackson keeps it to teach Affleck a lesson. So Affleck hires a guy to ruin Jackson’s reputation.

Jackson is cool under pressure. Simmering is a sauna trip for him. Jodie Foster is all about the crack: When will she? “Panic Room” puts her under so much pressure that you want to phone a therapist when all she’s doing is taking a bath. The Richter scale can feel her intensity. Written by David Koepp and directed by David Fincher, the movie was in fifth place, had been out for a month and had grossed north of $100 million in today’s dollars. And in the half year since 9/11, we were ready to watch people defend turf against invaders, especially a star whose ideal mode is stressed-out self-defense.

It takes Bullock too long to get into this. To be fair, who knows in what order things were filmed? Maybe she’d already done her couple of nutso scenes with Gosling and found investigating cases next to perfectly nice Ben Chaplin as anticlimactic as we do. Her best moments here involve using Chaplin for sex and letting Gosling come on to her. It’s like he watched Robert De Niro seduce Juliette Lewis in “Cape Fear” and thought, “This is sick, but something’s missing.” Right before Bullock throws him over a cliff, Gosling’s tongue turns her face into a lollipop. Hollywood, you can still do this! The tongue, the cliff, the gay crosswinds — honestly, what’s the hold up?

“High Crimes” was Judd and Freeman’s reunion movie after “Kiss the Girls,” two hours of sideways murder-mystery that was a hit for them in 1997. The best scene in the new movie comes right at the end when they’re just sitting around his law office, talking about the future, looking like two people content to be in the pilot of a CBS drama. Who needs all that deadly-Marine stuff when we could have had two hours of this — Emmy consideration?

There were three family movies on the list — “Clockstoppers” (a teen sci-fi fantasy); the first “Ice Age” movie, still a big hit in week six; and “The Rookie,” which remains scientifically engineered to leave you blubbering at a moment when there’s no baseball being played anywhere else. But wasn’t the No. 10 movie that week, “Frailty,” also a family movie? It’s about a widowed Texan and his two young sons. Sure, he’s corralled them into abducting strangers and chopping them up. But they do it as a family!

It’s Bill Paxton’s first outing as a director (he plays the dad). I missed it the first time around, but everything that’s appalling about the film also makes it daring. That goes for casting Matthew McConaughey as one of the adult sons then barely doing anything with him. McConaughey is about to charge up from one of his career valleys by just saying yes to everything and hoping we don’t say no. Brent Hanley wrote the script, which has the nerve to see its ideas about good and evil all the way through. With all due respect to McConaughey, the writing’s the star of this one.

For another, Diaz, Blair and especially Applegate appear to be enjoying the vulgarity. They’re not doing an imitation of horny boys. They’ve got their own organically juvenile enthusiasm for sex and its terminology. And the men they’re paired with — Thomas Jane and a grubby, grabby Jason Bateman — can actually keep up. Diaz is operating at the ridiculous erogenous apogee that made and kept her a star. This wasn’t one of her hits. Watching her, you’d never know it. She’s swinging and braying and insinuating the whole time. Surely no one in the history of movies has ever been this impervious to embarrassment, this liberated by a lack of shame. At some point, she’s pounding, randomly, on a locked door, crying “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” I’m embarrassed it took 18 years to find that funny.



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