What do the Hamburglar, Morris Day, and the ghost of Rod Steiger have in common? They’re the only three performers who don’t make an appearance in Nine, the gargantuanally over-cast and critically maligned musical that stars a half-dozen A-listers. Nine is the latest in a long tradition of jam-packed ensemble films, a litany that stretches from 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World to next spring’s Valentine’s Day, which looks to be only slightly less crowded than a SAG buffet bruncheon.
But when it comes to big-name stars, how much is too much? Is there a mathematical formula? We crunched the numbers of some past Hollywood-ensemble efforts, to see just how many A-listers a film can handle before it starts to get overcrowded. (For the sake of this argument, an A-lister is defined as any performer who, at the time of the film’s release, could likely have opened their own movie without any assistance.)
Star-stuffing is a delicate balance. Take the ultimate test case: the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. The first Ocean’s installment (with seven A-listers) was zippy and charming, especially for those of us who’d always wanted to see Elliott Gould pal around with a Chinese acrobat. But with the addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bruce Willis in Twelve, the franchise suddenly became showy and obnoxious, and even though it pulled back to eight in Thirteen, that film was akin to watching a bunch of vacationing Europeans get bottle service at the Encore: Oh, look at how rich and beautiful we are! This is more fun than the time we fired blood-diamond cannonballs from those castle turrets in Lake Como! The lesson? Don’t get greedy. (See also: Batman and Robin, Four Rooms, and Airport ’77.)
Now, though seven stars worked for Ocean’s Eleven, that’s hardly a magic number. Ocean’s Eleven was a frothy action-comedy, but when it comes to drama, beware the cautionary tale of 2006’s All the King’s Men, which boasted six A-listers. Despite such big names as Sean Penn, James Gandolfini, and Kate Winslet, this long-delayed adaptation was an utter washout. The blitz of prestigious performers, who came with subliminal promises of “serious acting,” ratcheted up audience expectations to an unfair degree: “Wait, if this has Gandolfini, Winslet, and Hopkins, then why isn’t it as good as The Sopranos, Heavenly Creatures, and Freejack combined?” The joyless King’s collapsed under its own Oscar-bait weight.
Some drama directors can pull off the all-star drama, like Robert Altman and his protégé, Paul Thomas Anderson. From Nashville to Prêt-à-Porter to Gosford Park, Robert Altman was famous for taking large groups of actors, placing them in a room together, and miking them in such a way that about 30 percent of all their dialogue sounded like “wubba-murma-oot.” Short Cuts was one of his most populous efforts (eight stars!), but its 183-minute running time and largely separate story lines meant that each star got a solid amount of screen time, but the movie never seemed overcrowded. (Also see: Magnolia and The Thin Red Line.) The audience feels like they are watching many short star-vehicles, rather than one overstuffed blockbuster in which every other A-lister in Hollywood retired to a camper between shots and slept in a giant solid-gold bunk bed.
But few directors can pull this off, so, in a way, the hobbled economy is a good thing: Who’s got money to be tempted to cast all those stars anymore? At best, you can afford two, and then you have to fill the rest of the film with background extras who wandered off the abandoned set of Guiding Light. However, there is one genre that has proven stubbornly and dangerously immune to economic hardship: the ensemble romantic comedy. The commercial success of this year’s He’s Just Not That Into You (seven A-listers and one Kris Kristofferson, a category unto himself) has encouraged heart-shaped silliness that strives for four-quadrant appeal by offering up a game of Actor Whac-a-Mole: “What’s that? You don’t like Ben Affleck? Well, don’t worry — Bradley Cooper’s comin’ right up! And if you don’t like him, there’s always Kevin Connolly … though that’s kind of like ordering Domino’s Cheesy Bread when you live in Little Italy.” HJNTIY is no doubt to blame for New Line’s decision to populate the upcoming Valentine’s Day with nearly fifteen stars, including Joe Jonas as the voice of a dog. We can say with reasonable confidence that the phrase “the more the merrier” will not apply.