John Travolta's Southern-Fried Mid-Life Crisis Case File #142/My Year of Flops II #39 The Poison Rose
I’m not sure whether the makers of the deliriously, wonderfully terrible 2019 John Travolta vehicle The Poison Rose should be grateful that the Fred Durst-directed 2019 John Travolta vehicle The Fanatic exists and is currently sucking up all the oxygen in the John Travolta bad moviesphere or whether they should curse the heavens that The Fanatic attracted all of the attention it might otherwise receive.
Needless to say, the attention that The Fanatic is currently has received is not positive. This is late-period John Travolta we’re talking about, after all. No, the press that The Fanatic is scoring is strictly of the morbidly curious, mocking, “Can you believe the depths to which this man’s cursed career will sink?” variety.
You know, the kind of reviews Travolta generally gets these days.
Travolta hasn’t had such a universally derided stinkeroo since roughly a year earlier, when Gotti became the laughingstock of the online and critical world en route to becoming a popular favorite for worst film of 2018.
The Fanatic is getting the kinds of reviews that challenge the notion that all press is good press but at least the notorious instant flop from the backwards baseball cap enthusiast and Battlefield Earth star is attracting press and attention, albeit of the mocking and derisive variety. The same cannot be said of The Poison Rose, despite a cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Famke Jannsen and a portly, effete Brendan Fraser unsuccessfully trying to make us all forget George of the Jungle.
Midnight Run screenwriter George Gallo’s adaptation of Richard Salvatore’s hardboiled novel grossed less than a half million dollars internationally and has been more or less ignored despite the talent involved and the bad movie realm’s bottomless fascination with Travolta.
The world, it seems, only has so much time and energy to devote to the absolute dregs of Travolta’s filmography. In 2019 that time and energy went almost exclusively to The Fanatic. That is and is not a shame because The Poison Rose very much deserves to be singled out for being spectacularly, egregiously and often entertainingly terrible even by the standards of late-period John Travolta vehicles.
Despite being completely overshadowed by the even more ridiculously, preposterously shitty-looking The Fanatic, The Poison Rose is a profoundly worthy motion picture. It is worthy of being hilariously eviscerated on Travolta-obsessed bad movie podcasts like The Flop House and We Hate Movies. It deserves to be gleefully picked apart in columns like this.
If you love, and I mean really love John Travolta as much for the terrible, terrible movies he makes as the classics, then you owe it to yourself to experience the shitty, shitty wonder of The Poison Rose. If you are a connoisseur of crap do yourself a favor and make a meaty meal out of this overlooked abomination.
Like so many of Travolta’s mistakes, The Poison Rose operates from a place of surreal miscalculation, particularly where Travolta’s character is concerned. He’s supposed to be roughly the same age as characters played by Brendan Fraser and Famke Jannsen and only now starting to go grey.
I’m tempted to give Travolta props for not going the Robert De Niro or Liam Neeson route with his late-stage career. Then I realized the only reason Travolta is not doing degrading, humiliating age-appropriate Taken-style Grandpa thrillers or raunchy geezer comedies called Viagra Weekend is because he’s foolishly making degrading, humiliating, wildly age-non-appropriate thrillers and dramas where he very distractingly plays characters who are supposed to be 15 or 20 years younger than the actor playing them.
How next-level bonkers is The Poison Rose? It legitimately asks us to believe that characters played by sixty-five year old John Travolta and fifty-year-old Brendan Fraser went to school together, that they were classmates. School together! Sure, one was a Senior and the other was a Freshman; that explains away two or three years, not fifteen.
Then again, The Poison Rose labors under the adorable misconception that the toupee of thick, chestnut hair Travolta sports and that is so distracting and attention-stealing that it deserves a spot high in the credits, somewhere between Peter Stormare and Famke Jannsen, is so convincing and sexy that it makes a man very clearly in his mid-sixties look ten to twenty years younger.
The Poison Rose similarly seems to think that giving famous hunk/legendary beefcake Brendan Fraser an unforgivably ugly combover, hunchback posture and a gut so pronounced that it enters the frame a good five seconds before the rest of him, then having him talk like he’s got a mouth full of tissue paper, pork rinds and vaseline makes him appear old enough to be a contemporary of a character played by an actor a decade and a half his senior.
Needless to say, Travolta and Fraser are the not same age. Hell, they aren’t even part of the same generation yet like Gotti and Speed Kills before it The Poison Rose is a mid-life crisis in film form that finds an actor who recently won kudos for FINALLY FUCKING ACCEPTING THAT HE IS A BALD MAN IN HIS MID-60S by going toupee-free in public (and looking great!) ridiculously and conspicuously playing a role clearly written for a much younger man.
Throughout The Poison Rose I was obsessed with two questions, neither related to the tedious, easily solvable mysteries at the film’s core. First off, I wondered when, for the love of God, the movie is supposed to take place, other than a soupy morass of the semi-distant past. I guessed the mid-1980s. Apparently it takes place in 1978. Go figure.
Secondly, I wondered just how ridiculously, unrealistically young we were supposed to think Travolta’s character is. 45? 50? In the opening scene a cut rate femme fatale tells Travolta’s hardboiled shamus Carson Phillips that she was expecting someone older, the first of many bizarre attempts to depict Travolta as the very image of virile youth.
To get a sense of The Poison Rose’s deep, abiding love for cliches, it opens with Carson confiding in us via narration in Travolta’s Southern accent, which sounds like a genteel Southern belle being softly strangled at all times, that he likes to drink, he likes to smoke and he likes to gamble just a little too much. Lest we doubt that he is a hokey caricature of a tough guy PI we also learn “a beautiful woman with a sob story has always been one of my weaknesses.”
Travolta’s attempt at Southern and rakish sounds like someone invisible is pressing down angrily on his voice box and when he’s delivering painfully purple narration about his adopted town of Los Angeles, and how “whoever named this place the city of Angels certainly had a terrific sense of humor” he’s soft-spoken to the point that his voice begins to fade completely out.
As charismatic and magnetic a movie star as John Travolta is he tends to sink to the level of his material more than he elevates the garbage he honors with his presence. When the movie’s great Travolta is both one of our greatest movie stars and an excellent actor. When he’s serving up hot garbage like The Poison Rose, however, he’s just as god-awful as the movie.
Carson starts the movie out in L.A but high tails it back to his home town of Galveston, Texas one step ahead of some very unsavory types and discovers that in his absence it has devolved into a one-dimensional cartoon of swampy, dim-witted Southern Gothic.
Carson used to rule his hometown as the jock star of the football team in one of those tedious small towns where football isn’t just a game, it’s life, and religion, and an all-consuming fever that has overtaken everyone in the community. Then he cheated, disgraced himself and took the cowards way out, only to return decades later looking a paycheck and possibly redemption.
Our generic private dick isn’t the only groaning cliche in the cast; in one of his shittiest performances the sometimes great Peter Stormare embarrasses himself with a cornball Wavy Gravy routine as “Slide”, a figure Carson admiringly calls “the original hippie” who “probably dropped more acid than Timothy Leary.”
Fraser is another fine actor doing some of the worst work of his career as a sniveling, evil MD, a real Doctor Giggles type in being in…sane and also out…of his mind who suggests a clammy, unpalatable cross between Peter Lorre, Truman Capote, Dick Tracy and Dave Foley plus a good fifty pounds. It’s a performance almost hypnotic in its bigness and its badness.
By the time Fraser shows up late in the film wearing a yellow fedora and purple bow tie, weakly holding a gun in one hand and a cigarette in the other to lamely, limply threaten our hero I just felt sorry for him as an actor.
The only actor who comes off well in this southern-fried idiocy, this Chinatown for Dummies that centers on an asshole football player named Happy dying of suspicious causes on the playing field is Morgan Freeman as Doc.
The Poison Rose desperately wants to be a Southern, disco-era Chinatown, with Travolta woefully miscast as its Jake Gittes and Freeman’s “Doc” as its answer to John Huston’s patriarch of towering, mesmerizing evil.
The Poison Rose affords Freeman an opportunity to cut loose and let go of his twinkly-eyed goodly Godliness and play an evil motherfucker, a sonorous power broker with an oily tentacle in everything that happens in a town he rules over as its uncontested powerbroker and kingpin.
As his Oscar-nominated turn as a pimp in Street Smart illustrated, Freeman can be fucking terrifying when the role calls for it. Of the high-powered talent onscreen here only Freeman transcends the schlocky nature of the material.
I went into The Poison Rose knowing nothing about it except that it was yet another late-period John Travolta flop that scored a zero rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I had blind faith in the Blow Out star. I knew going in that whileThe Poison Rose most assuredly would not be good it would be campy and embarrassing and fascinatingly, irritatingly sincere and god-awful in that distinctive Travolta fashion.
My faith was rewarded. Though he does not write or direct his direct-to-video embarrassments it nevertheless feels like Travolta is their auteur, their guiding voice, the reason they exist in defiance of all we know about the human aging process. Travolta gives these movies that something extra that separates the transcendently awful from the merely bad.
The Poison Rose is so bad it’s kind of great, a Southern-fried, empty headed guilty pleasure that gives Travolta yet another professional nadir that’s redeemed by the misplaced conviction he brings to every role, even ones this misguided. Especially ones this misguided.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
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