Each era of film has a few performers who have a degree of popularity for a short time, then burn out really fast. We saw this with the unfortunate career of Bobcat Goldthwait, who spent the remainder of his run after the 80’s writing off-kilter black comedies, but remained out of the limelight. Then there was Pauly Shore, whom I previously covered. His time in the spotlight lasted only a few years, but seemed like an eternity. However, there is one flash-in-the-pan actor that has fascinated me for just over a decade.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. was a rising star in the 90’s due, in part, to his early role in the 1991 drama Boyz n the Hood, directed by the talented-yet-often-misguided John Singleton. I found Boyz n the Hood to be an excellent exploration of the life of teens with various upbringings in the Los Angeles ghetto featuring particularly-superb performances by Laurence Fishburne and Morris Chestnut. The film was universally critically-successful, and earned Singleton two Oscar nominations: one for Best Original Screenplay, and one for Best Director. What is even more impressive is that the movie made back almost ten times its $6 million-dollar budget, making it one of the most successful films of the 90’s in terms of budget-to-gross ratio.
After his initial surprise success, he had a period of lesser roles for a few years. He had a run as a recurring character in the hit series MacGuyver and went on to star in the first of many bombs of his career, the 1992 mess Gladiator. No, this is not the excellent 2000 film starring Russel Crowe, this is the OTHER Gladiator from the 90’s. The story centers on two boxers caught in an illegal, underground fighting ladder. It was ignored by audiences, mocked by critics and failed to perform at the Box Office. Over the last ten years or so, Gladiator has gained somewhat of a cult following, though I still find the film to be mostly-bland, badly-acted and poorly-edited.
He had a supporting role in the excellent 1992 film A Few Good Men, and this kept him in the limelight, but a series of career missteps would start him down a path of ultimate collapse. The first one was a mostly-forgotten, uninspired, 1994 retread called Lightning Jack, in which Paul Hogan literally plays Crocodile Dundee in the Old West, except he is most definitely not Crocodile Dundee, he is Lightning Jack! This movie was astounding. It was such a cynical, pointless piece of crap and nobody involved seemed to really care about it. Despite having a large role in the movie, Gooding was mostly unrecognized due to the film’s very limited success.
He starred in the sloppy-yet-entertaining Wolfgang Petersen thriller Outbreak in 1995. It was a smaller role, as he was being pushed more and more into the background, a career trend we will see him reliving in the future. The movie overall was not bad, just a little off. A fictional viral outbreak of Ebola hits a small U.S. town after a monkey escapes captivity and attacks a young girl, infecting her. The CDC and Army get involved and we get a very localized, yet chilling apocalyptic scenario. The flaws of the film come out in the form of cliched evil political characters and lazy performances by Renee Russo and Dustin Hoffman, who are both carried by supporting roles from Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman.
He then moved on to the bland-as-hell 1995 TV Drama from HBO Pictures, The Tuskegee Airmen. It was stoic, conventional, and really just about as entertaining as being told the captivating story concisely by a cliche-spewing, dull-voiced professor. The film had an ugly, grey look to it too, obviously trying to give the film some age and create a tone of being in another time, but the lack of color just made this movie kind of hideous. Still, nobody saw this next project coming, nor could they have anticipated Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s massive success that would come as a result.
In 1995, the Cameron Crowe-directed Jerry Maguire was released. At the time, Tom Cruise was pretty much a guarantee of any film’s success, but Jerry Maguire surprised everyone by being not just a traditional romantic drama, but an superb character study. In the film, Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays a young football star who puts his career on the line as he owes his fame and his shot at greatness to a single sports agent, the titular Jerry Maguire. In the film, his now-famous line, “Show me the money!” was screamed over the phone enthusiastically. The scenes where Cruise and Gooding, Jr. were acting off of each other were excellent, though the movie did tend to slow a little when it shifted focus to the softer romantic moments. Still, it is one of the best movies of the 90’s and a must see for anyone who is interested in a drama that is both true-to-life and a little heartwarming. The most significant result of Jerry Maguire was Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar win. This Oscar victory fueled his career straight into the Stratosphere, then it entered the Mesosphere, lost momentum, then came plummeting back down to Earth in a giant ball of fire.
Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s career decline is one of the most rapid, shocking failures in the history of the film industry. The young actor still showed much promise, but, for some reason, everything just went South. This was likely due a couple major contributing factors. The first was the fact that Cuba Gooding, Jr. rose to stardom during one of the worst periods in movie history, the late-90’s-to-early-2000’s. Sure, there were some great movies from this time, but there was also a lot of crap which paved the way for a third independent film revolution in the mid 2000’s. Another contributing factor, I believe, is Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s tendency to pick movies that are accessible to most audiences instead of challenging roles, going for the I-liked-that-movie-so-I-should-like-this-one route. Many of his choices are either heavy-handed cloned dramas or by-the-numbers comedies. There really was nothing in between. These extremes prove to result in a general lack of success for their lead performers if they remain trapped in this particular rut for too long.
After Jerry Maguire, Gooding, Jr.’s next major role was the successful comedy As Good As it Gets, a romance film aimed at an audience of middle-aged-to-older women. The film centers around several varying characters who bond over a tragedy. It is not a bad film per se, it just lacked any real motivation or direction, relying too much on the typical romantic drama tropes we have seen time and again in significantly better films. The movie was directed by James L. Brooks, who has had a wide career spanning movies, television and even work writing for video games. His most significant work was his run as a writer and producer on such mega-hit TV series such as Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi and the Simpsons. Still, for Cuba Gooding, Jr., he had already plateaued, and it was all downhill from here.
His next major film was the Robin Williams drama What Dreams May Come. The movie was a strangely Nihilistic exploration of the afterlife, where, after the death of two children, a doctor played by Williams’ dies tragically while trying to save others in an accident. He finds himself in heaven where he is met by old friends (who are actually his children in disguise.. for some reason) who guide him and help him come to terms with his new, very permanent existence. His heaven is inside his mind’s creation of a world inspired by a painting his wife did for him before his sudden death. Meanwhile, his widowed love, tormented by the cycle of loss commits suicide, which leads her to a grim fate. Bent on crossing the afterlife to find his lost love, Williams’ character takes a sort of Faustian adventure through beautifully-designed worlds. What Dreams May Come was not exactly a bad movie. It was more confused, I would say. There are a number of things that do not make sense, like why his children disguise themselves as old colleagues and acquaintances, and why this afterlife has no mention or exploration of God or the existence thereof. We see his wife, because she commits suicide, is sent “somewhere else”, and when we see it, we find her trapped in a lone house at the bottom of an enormous dome of an upside-down church. Is this Hell? Purgatory? Why, if he is in some sort of Heaven of his own creation, is he unable to drink tea without it being paint? Why? A lot of the elements in this movie made no sense, and were never addressed. The writers played it safe, never straying into one dogmatic territory over another, treading this strange middle line and, as a result, failing to paint a proper picture of this world we’re supposed to accept.
Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s performance in What Dreams May Come was bad. He spends a majority of the first act spouting exposition and driving the plot forward with uninteresting mythos disguised as revelation. As the plot meanders about, waiting for the wife to off herself so the story can actually start, he focuses on getting William’s character grounded, failing constantly. The film is really joyless too, despite obviously trying to be a reassuring fable of the afterlife, and this is not helped by Gooding, Jr.’s bland delivery.
His next major entry was the 1999 film Instinct, which is a bad, baaaad film. This, at least in my opinion, is probably the point where people were starting to realize something was going really wrong in Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s career. Instinct is a lazy, unoriginal mess of a movie about a psychologist, played by Cuba, who wants to reach an introverted, traumatized anthropologist who was driven back to primal instincts after spending years living with gorillas only to see them slaughtered by poachers. The interviews are slow, repetitive and boring and the remainder of the film is padded out with bad, cliched, drama in a prison for the mentally insane. So, if you have not already guessed: it’s Silence of the Lambs meets Cuckoo’s Nest, and I am not the first person to make that comparison.
Everything about Instinct is calculated to form the most perfect blend of dramatic tension for the folks out there that have never seen a movie. It reeks of being written-by-committee and has studio stains all over it. It is a shallow, ugly film that plays on the emotions with manipulative moments and a cartoonishly-villainous prison staff, who seem to only exist to torment the souls we see trapped inside. The ending of the movie is so pandering and stupid that I was just astonished. This film came out about the time that I was starting to develop a more discriminating taste in films, and when I saw it I was captivated by how little thought actually went into it.
The next few projects ranged in quality, from a terrible bomb (Chill Factor) to a mediocre attempt at a military drama (Men of Honor). Cuba Gooding, Jr. was finding it impossible to live up to the hype that surrounded him just a few years before. He followed these two films up with the overstuffed Jerry Zucker comedy Rat Race, a movie about groups of buffoons doing slapstick across the country for a chance at a windfall price, hosted by a team of gambling billionaires. Essentially, the movie was a remake of the 1965 comedy The Great Race, which itself was the original inspiration for Hanna Barbera's Wacky Races cartoon series. I know Rat Race has fans, and that is fine, there are certainly worse comedies out there (Cuba Gooding, Jr. would go on to star in a few of them), but I was never a fan of most of the performers that headline the film, so I just found it to be a desperate and lazy movie, filled with lots of mugging and screaming.
Rat Race began a series of comedy bombs for Cuba Gooding, Jr. The next major film he appeared in was the absolutely awful Snow Dogs, about a man who inherits a sled dog team. In the film we see the once-heralded actor planting over-the-top expressions into the camera while seemingly-sadistic dogs appear to torture him. It was a bad movie. This was no surprise to film fans though as the movie was from director Brian Levant, one of the worst filmmakers working in major cinema and his typical buddy-style slapstick permeates this piece of Disney garbage. I am going to spotlight one more movie here, because he has been in a large number of films since Snow Dogs, but most of them are not even worth mentioning.
His follow up to Snow Dogs was sort of the nail in the coffin for Cuba Gooding, Jr’s A-List run. Boat Trip was so bad, so much of an epic fail, that I wonder if it was actually on purpose... Seriously. I cannot pinpoint a motivation for this now, but I don’t think anyone could or would want to make a comedy this bad without wanting to hurt someone’s career. I’m not pointing any fingers, but something amiss had to have been up with this. Boat Trip follows the exploits of two straight men hoping to pick up chicks who accidentally end up on a gay cruise trip. The movie is filled with abounding homophobia and then has the nerve, as many of these films do, to try to back off on it in the end, as though we’re supposed to except that these two jerks learned some sort of lesson. It is tremendously unfunny movie too, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. is out-acted by the astoundingly-awful Horatio Sanz! That is how far he fell.
From here Cuba Gooding Jr., would go on to star in the football flick Radio, which is an emotionally-manipulative sports drama. Then he spent most of his career up to present day staying safely in smaller parts in lesser movies. He starred in the purely-evil Daddy Day Camp and had a minor role in the good film American Gangster, but his Box Office prominence was over. He would continue to appear in limited release dramas and thrillers and has spent his entire career since the mid-2000’s trying to regain some recognition from fans, and failing every time.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. is the epitome of wasted talent. He showed promise, then got cynical. He took what he was offered and obviously had terrible taste in screenplays, picking dramas that I assume the thought were poignant, and comedies that he had to have known were losers. It is a shame because, early on, I wanted to like Cuba Gooding, Jr., but his poor role choices just made it impossible for me to do so. You cannot spend your time in movies making films that you think will get you an Oscar, because about 90% of the time, the movies that are trying to be Oscar-bait, are really just disasters.