My World of Flops A Dirk Pitt Misadventure Case File #131/My Year of Flops II #28 Sahara (2005)

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I’ve been on a real Matthew McConaughey here at My World of Flops as of late. I’ve covered his exquisitely bonkers recent work in the field of high profile flops twice in the last month in the form of Serenity and The Beach Bum because I find McConaughey endlessly fascinating even if the movies he’s in don’t always have as much personality as he does. 

Considering my love for McConaughey it’s crazy that it’s taken me twelve years to finally get around to covering perhaps McConaughey’s biggest, most notorious flop, the 160 million dollar 2005 boondoggle Sahara. Everything about Sahara is utterly fascinating except the film itself. 

In an astonishing display of terrible judgment, a Jesus-loving billionaire named Phillip Anschutz, the thirty-eighth richest man in the United States, paid ten million dollars for the rights to the Clive Cussler novel Sahara with an eye towards making the adventure novels loved by boring white businessmen on airplanes an Indiana Jones-like big-budget franchise. 

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Cussler is basically a real-life version of Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness’ Garth Marenghi, a demented narcissistic with an insanely inflated sense of his own importance and the popularity of his work. To that end, Cussler happily accepted an eight figure payday for the rights to his shitty 1992 novel but only on the condition that, as the megalomaniacal author of a series of colonialist wet dream beach paperbacks, he be given complete control over the adaptation despite possessing next to nothing in the way of relevant filmmaking experience. 

By all accounts, Cussler was a nightmare to work with, an arrogant diva who sneered insouciantly at screenwriters’ attempt to bring his second-rate Indiana Jones knock-off to life, peppering his objections with racist and anti-Semitic invective, according to legal documents related to the lawsuit Cussler filed against Anschultz and then the counter-suit Anschultz filed against Cussler. 

It’s not hard to imagine that a man who wrote a trashy best-seller like Sahara about brilliant, magical white goofballs saving Africa while outsmarting and out-maneuvering evil, villainous, brown and black skinned Arab and African villains at every turn being racist in his everyday life and business dealings.  

If Cussler had gotten his way, Sahara could have been even more racist. Cussler insisted that it was dramatically important to include a sequence where a vicious black female slave boss named Melika is righteously murdered by Al Giordano, hero Dirk Pitt’s best friend, sidekick and fellow white savior figure, something the production worried would push the family-friendly film into a deeply unwanted R rating. 

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The producers paid a series of heavyweights, including The Sting screenwriter David S. Ward and War of the Worlds scribe Josh Friedman, something in the area of a half million dollars apiece, only to have the perpetually apoplectic novelist pooh pooh their drafts as hopelessly inferior to his own revisions, novel and ideas. 

In a typical bit of vitriol, Cussler seethed of Friedman’s contributions, "This dialogue is so trite it defies comment. This Josh Friedman should have his keyboard shoved up his anal canal.”

Everything I’ve read about Cussler makes him seem like a L Ron Hubbard-level character with an L. Ron Hubbard level of talent and an L. Ron Hubbard level of arrogance and self-delusion. That is not a compliment.

Cussler and the screenwriters weren’t the only participants preposterously over-paid. Matthew McConaughey, still many years away from his Oscar and comeback, was paid eight million dollars to grin his way through the role of Dirk Pitt, Cussler’s impossibly idealized alter-ego while Steve Zahn was paid a little over two million dollars to play his sidekick Al Giordano. 

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I don’t want to say that paying McConaughey and Steven Zahn eight million dollars and a little over two million dollars respectively is wildly exorbitant and a phenomenal waste of money, but I’m pretty sure that both men have been paid in weed for other films and were overjoyed for the payment. 

Zahn and McConaughey are a study in complementary opposites. One brings a goofball stoner energy to the film. The other, in sharp contrast, brings a HUNKY goofball stoner energy to the project.

McConaughey reportedly campaigned actively for the role of Dirk Pitt. That makes sense in that he was paid EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS for a forgettable performance in an airport paperback of a  glorified b-movie but Sahara serves as a dispiriting reminder that McConaughey isn’t always awesome. 

In standard-issue action hero mode McConaughey can be surprisingly and distressingly generic, just another preposterously handsome charmer with an irresistible drawl. Sahara finds McConaughey at his least distinctive and most generic but it also posits him as something of a superman. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s playing Clive Cussler’s alter-ego and that man has a VERY high opinion of himself and his work. 

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Dirk Pitt is no mere naval historian. No, he’s a ridiculously accomplished renaissance man: a lover of fine wine, expensive cars and good stogies, a Navy SEAL and an international adventurer whose incredible achievements make admiring headlines around the world. Dirk is the kind of alpha-male super-stud who finds a cure for Cancer, slam dunks a basketball, then fucks a super model, all in the same eventful morning. 

In Sahara, Matthew McConaughey, Mr. Naked Bongos himself, is a genius whose brain is as impressive as his body, which is never as funny or as convincing as it should be. In his capacity as a rogue super-genius funded by Admiral James Sandecker (William H. Macy), Dirk procures a rare confederate coin that could lead him to the CSS Texas, a Confederate ship that somehow ended up in Africa. 

A confederate ship in Africa? That promises to get the blood of a certain subset of tedious middle-aged American man pumping even before the movie’s soundtrack of classic rock hits kicks in. So Dirk and sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) head to Africa where they encounter vicious warlords, heroic doctor Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) and a contaminant with the awful deadly power to bring about an apocalypse. 

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What follows is the kind of featherweight, moderately racist fluff designed to be seen exclusively on airplanes and basic cable in the afternoon. Its the kind of forgettable also-ran that should be found on videocassette in bed and breakfasts. Nobody should pay money to see a movie like Sahara; it should always be something undiscriminating men are able to see for free. It’s an unabashedly old-fashioned throwback to the mid-1980s, when a wave of unadventurous adventure movies tried and failed to recreate the success of Indiana Jones.

I would vastly prefer a crazy, terrible, incompetent but distinctive adaptation of Sahara to the blandly competent version we get here. In yet another colorful eccentricity, Cussler has a habit of giving himself cameos in his books. Why not take that to its ridiculous extreme and have Cussler star as Dirk Pitt? Why stop there? Why not make this a Clive Cussler production, starring, directed, written and produced by Clive Cussler? Sure, Cussler is decades too old for the part and also not an actor but why should that stop him? He’s not a screenwriter either but that did not keep him from getting his oily fingerprints all over the movie’s underwhelming screenplay. 

Watching Sahara was such a breathtakingly forgettable experience that the only genuine pleasure I derived from it came from periodically accessing the “Trivia” feature on Amazon, which is a cross between VH-1’s “Pop Up Video”, an audio commentary and the “Trivia” section of the Internet Movie Database. 

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I don’t know what I was expecting but I was delighted by random bits of nonsense like “William H. Macy: While in college, Macy had an old van with a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t Laugh: Your Daughter Might Be in Here!” 

Ah, but that’s not the only nugget of hilariously pointless info, seemingly gleaned from the book “100 Random, Possibly Made Up Facts About William H. Macy.” I also learned that Macy was the voice of the legendary “Secret: Strong enough for a man but made for a woman” commercial AND in quite possibly the greatest bit of trivia in human history, “William H. Macy: Has been widely rumored to own a large collection of boomerangs. Macy himself says he does not collect boomerangs and has no idea how the rumor got started.” 

You might think that rumor is completely innocuous but I could see how it could really come back to hurt Macy. 

These random bits of possibly bogus trivia regarding beloved character and indulgent parent William H. Macy’s collegiate horniness and non-existent boomerang collection fascinated me far more than anything in Sahara itself. 

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Not only would I vastly prefer a documentary or narrative film about the making of Sahara and Cussler’s bizarre misadventures in the motion picture business to Sahara, I’d similarly watch a movie about how the false rumor of William H. Macy’s impressive boomerang collection spread a dozen times than re-watch Sahara even once. 

Sahara is primo dadsploitation, a movie of interest only to the dads of the world. It’s a movie only dads could possibly enjoy but even dads like myself deserve better than this.

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure 

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