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Objects of the class “Weekend at Bernie’s”

Weekend at Bernie’s” is a low-quality movie that nobody’s seen but everybody knows what it’s about. Are there many other examples of this sort of cultural artifact? Another is Woody Allen’s movie Zelig, which didn’t get great reviews or great box office, but once again, its theme is well known. It’s tough for me to think of lots of examples of this sort. The key is to have all 3 features:
(1) Generally acknowledged to be of low quality
(2) Not particularly popular or successful
(3) Basic storyline or theme is well known.

For example, James Joyce’s Ulysses satisfies (2) and (3) but not (1); similarly (at a lower level) with Edward Scissorhands. The Bridges of Madison County satisfies (1) and (3) but not (2), and of course lots of things satisfy (1) and (2) but not (3). I also don’t want to include “so-bad-it’s-good” kinds of artifacts like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” which are famous because of their crappiness.

I’m really thinking of things like Weekend at Bernie’s, which sought, and found a low-to-moderate success but had a storyline with such a good “hook” that most of the people who know about it didn’t actually see the movie (or read the book, or whatever). It’s not such a mystery that lots of people know what Ulysses is about–it’s a Great Book so we’ve heard about it. And it’s not such a mystery that lots of people know what The Bridges of Madison County is about–lots of people bought the book. But Weekend at Bernie’s (or Zelig)–they probably have really good gimmicks to be so well known.


  1. Tim M. says:

    Here are my mid-90's attempts: Starship Troopers and Event Horizon. Neither has a good reputation. Both were unsuccessful (Starship grossed 55 mil, but cost 95 mil & Event Horizon grossed 27 mil, but cost 70 mil). Event Horizon is well-known for being especially scary or disgusting. Starship Troopers' plot is simple enough to be well-known – insects invade the earth.

    Both of these came out in 1997 – what would you guess that makes my age?

    -Tim M.

  2. Tim M. says:

    Another (1) & (3), but not (2) is Cocktail starring Tom Cruise.

  3. John says:

    Just about any movie with Chuck Norris would qualify. Low quality — check. Not particularly successful — are his films even seen in theaters, or do they go straight to the bargain bin at Blockbuster? Storyline — somebody needs a beating, and Chuck provides it.

  4. Tim,

    Interesting comment about cohort effects. Perhaps Weekend at Bernie's isn't so well known to people who are much younger or older than 40, I dunno. I just thought it was an interesting case since I feel like I know all about the movie even though I never saw it (or even considered seeing it)!

  5. parinella says:

    How about "The Bell Curve"? "Das Kapital"? "Major League"? "Girls Gone Wild"?

  6. Sam Cook says:

    I'm under 30, and I definitely know about Weekend at Bernie's. I think there was a sequel, Weekend at Bernie's 2, whose plot could only be similar.

    A more recent one that comes to mind is Dude, Where's My Car? Two stoners get stoned (or drunk?–some altered state. I of course didn't see the movie to know for sure.) and lose their car. I guess you could argue that this one doesn't count because even if you'd never heard of the movie you could guess the plot. But it was heavily advertised a few years ago, so I think it legitimately meets criterion (3).

  7. Andrew says:

    Your first two examples violate condition (1). Your third and fourth are too generic, I think. From the titles alone, one can guess what they're about. A true "Bernie", in my opinion, has to have more of a unique premise.

    I actually saw "Dude, Where's my Car?" It was really bad.

  8. David Kane says:

    1) Insects attacked the Earth but did not invade it in Starship troopers.

    2) I, for one, am happy enough to make obscure references to Weekend at Bernie's.

    3) I nominate Red Dawn, although whether or not its story line is well-known depends, I guess, in the circles that one travels in . . .

  9. Jonathan says:

    This probably disqualifies me, because I liked the vast majority of Dude, Where's My Car (the ending was a little weak), but how about Indecent Proposal?

  10. jhe says:

    May I propose changing the criteria slightly…
    1. Gnerally not cinsidered high art
    2 & 3. Known of/understood by significantly more people than those who have experienced it directly.

    With these modifications I would propose MacGyver as an example.

    There's another interesting category of items which are current within an age or cultural cohort whose references expand beyond the cohort as that cohort gains or usurps media interest. I think this happens everytime a new age cohort gets control over media or in special cases like the provenance of Star Trek memes in the early Internet adoptors.

  11. Tim M. says:

    Weekend at Bernie's is well known, even for someone my age; I saw it and someone else my age brought it up in conversation a couple of years ago to mock its ridiculousness.

    Dude, Where's my Car is an excellent example; I saw it an hated it, in spite of being the target audience – a 16 year-old male.

    Another example is Battlefield Earth. (1) IMDB bottom 100 films: (2) 21 mil gross on 70 mil budget. (3) Scientology brainwash film/ L.Ron Hubbard masterpiece, depending on your slant (not terribly specific, but Scientology has a strong stench).

    Criteria 1 is pretty easy to quantify objectively: use low IMDB user scores or low Metacritic (aggregate of critics) scores or RottenTomatoes. Criteria 2 is also easy to quantify at least for films of the last decade or two: IMDB business/box office info (maybe quotient of gross to budget

  12. Tim M. says:

    Another stab: Glitter, Mariah Carey trainwreck film debut.

    Terribly recieved critically and commercially. Well-known because of its star.

    In the same vein, Crossroads, Britney Spears's trainwreck film debut. Crossroads isn't as good of an example because she continued to have a successful music career, whereas Mariah Carey hit a *rough* patch on both fronts, so Crossroads's failure isn't as useful comedically.

  13. Tim M. says:

    Final thought for now – there's an entire genre of such films: videogame adaptations.

    Most fail critically, many financially, and are pretty well-known from the games (analogous to pop-stars).

  14. dsquared says:

    Patch Adams?

  15. dsmith says:


  16. Heck, why not just say Waterworld or Ishtar and cut out the middleman? But that's a little different–I'm not talking about movies that are famous for being flops, or famous for being stupid.

    The key characteristic of a "Bernie," as I see it, is that I (and others) feel like I've seen it, even though I haven't. It's like it's entered my brain, even though (a) I didn't see it, and (b) it didn't receive saturation coverage in the media. (I think I saw a couple TV ads for it.)

  17. dsquared says:

    Woody Allen's "Zelig" fits the criteria pretty well I think.

  18. dsquared says:

    I asked this of guests at a party and we came up with "Heathers", which was neither a particularly good movie nor a big hit, but everyone knows what "Heathers" are. Someone also argued that prior to the Broadway revival, Mel Brooks' "The Producers" would probably have fit into this category.

  19. C. Zorn says:

    – Coyote Ugly.

    – United 93.

    – Any of the sequels to Halloween, Friday the 13th, or Nightmare on Elm Street.