Until "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Place Beyond The Pines" convinced people that Bradley Cooper had real acting chops, he'd mostly worked in commercial fare ("The Hangover," "The A-Team," et al.). But probably the most embarrassing of his career is "All About Steve," the spectacularly misjudged romantic comedy that landed just as Cooper blew up. Released in the same year as Sandra Bullock's two mega-hits "The Blind Side" and "The Proposal," it stars the actress as a kooky crossword writer who goes on a date with Cooper's Steve Miller. He's not keen, and bails, but she becomes obsessed, getting fired from her job and stalking him around the country. Presumably originally conceived as a dark "Young Adult"-ish comedy, it's unfortunately shot and directed like any other glossy, broad romance, which has the effect of making Bullock seem all the more unhinged. Cooper's not all that much more likable, and has no chemistry with Bullock (which we suppose is part of the point), and the movie's been hastily buried on his resume as a result.
The man considered by many to be the greatest actor of his generation has been selective in his parts; he's only credited in eighteen films across a 30-year career and has generally avoided the temptations of the studio paycheck gig (he was pursued heavily to play Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows," but never seemed close to taking the offer seriously). But there's one exception of a sort, and that's his last role before "Lincoln," in the musical "Nine." When Javier Bardem dropped out of the Harvey Weinstein-backed, Rob Marshall-helmed picture, Harvey persuaded Daniel Day-Lewis to step in. The actor's version of selling out is hardly comparable to most of these here, but he's still ill-at-ease in the role, his method intensity not proving a great center point for a film that doesn't really work in general.
Like Cooper, Hugh Jackman has a background predominately in commercial studio movies, most notably as Wolverine in the 'X-Men' franchise, which has worked out well ("X2"), and less so ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine"). But of all the questionable decisions he's made over the years ("Kate & Leopold," "Scoop," "Van Helsing"), the worst might have been "Deception." Somehow attracting some impressive talent (Jackman, Ewan McGregor, Michelle Williams), the desperately unsexy erotic thriller, directed in a career-ending manner by commercials veteran Marcel Langenegger, finds Jackman playing a lawyer who introduces an accountant (McGregor) to the world of secret sex clubs, in what turns out to be a scheme to embezzle money from an investment bank. We support Jackman stretching himself, obviously, and "The Prestige" proved that his natural likability can be cannily turned against itself, but he's disastrously miscast in a part that feels like a Michael Douglas reject, and he's deeply unscary as the villain of a film that wouldn't even be impressive if you saw it on Cinemax at 4 a.m. Hopefully it's an experiment not to be repeated.
A serious actor to the last, Joaquin Phoenix is another performer who doesn't just take whatever he's offered, tending to hold out for work with interesting filmmakers, or at least play a great role. On the rare occasions he's taken a studio picture, it has tended to be in order to work with a respected director like Ridley Scott or (at the time) M. Night Shyamalan. But the one film he's made that really does stink of a paycheck is "Ladder 49." Directed by Jay Russell, the auteur behind "My Dog Skip," the film's a treacly drama about firefighters, with Phoenix in the lead role as a fireman trapped in a building who, through flashbacks, fills out his life in the department. Phoenix is, to his credit, the best thing in it, but the film's terribly by-the-numbers and unchallenging. And a decade on, it more than ever feels like a callous post 9/11 cash-in on the public's affection for firemen. It's far from the worst film on this list, and it's a credit to Phoenix that this is the closest thing to a paycheck he's ever taken, but it's still somewhat of a blotch on his record.
One of the more sturdy, reliable leading men in Hollywood, you tend to know what you're getting with Denzel Washington. His films are rarely terrible and, at least since "Malcolm X," rarely masterpieces, but generally turn out to be watchable, middle-of-the-road programmers with varying degrees of success. "Virtuosity" is certainly made in that mold, but it's also one of the worst and least successful films Washington has made. Set in the then-future of 1999, it's one of those mid-'90s films reflecting Hollywood's deep fear of the Internet and video games. "Virtuosity" features Washington as an ex-cop, put behind bars for killing the man who murdered his family, who must face off against SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe), a virtual reality amalgam of the personalities of the worst 200 serial killers in history who's escaped into the real world, thanks to reasons the screenwriter's barely bothered to figure out. It's a defiantly stupid film, summing up so much of the worst of mid-'90s mainstream cinema, and Washington's autopilot cop is in an entirely different film than the one Crowe is occupying with his wildly over-the-top scenery chewing.