The Surprise Star Cameos in Bad Comedies Need to Stop
You may not be aware of this, but there’s a movie out this weekend that stars Chris Evans and Ana de Armas. It’s on Apple TV+, and it’s called Ghosted. No, it’s not about dead people, although everybody involved in the film understands that viewers might get that impression. Actually, it’s about Cole, a farmer, who meets-cute with Sadie, an art curator, the two of them spending an incredibly romantic day together in Washington D.C. He’s nuts about her, but when she doesn’t respond to his texts over the next few days, he decides to impulsively fly out to London to see her — only to discover she’s really a CIA agent involved in some dangerous, high-stakes espionage. Hilarity does not ensue.
Ghosted is the sort of junky “Let’s put two big stars into a generic blockbuster and not try too hard” streaming movie that we’ve seen a lot of in the last few years. They’re all fairly disposable and forgettable, but there’s one element of Ghosted that I found particularly annoying, and it’s that director Dexter Fletcher throws in some egregious surprise star cameos on occasion. On the off chance that you do not want this film ruined for you, I’m going to throw in a….
SPOILER ALERT WARNING
…right there. Now, if you’re still reading, that means you’re okay with me telling you that once Cole and Sadie go on the run to evade the bad guys, random hitmen pursue them to collect the bounty on their heads. And in one sequence, our bickering love birds — he’s mad that she lied to him about what she does for a living, she’s mad that he’s so needy he followed her to London — get corralled by a bounty hunter played by… Anthony Mackie! Hey, that’s Evans’ buddy from the Marvel movies! I get it! Don’t get too used to Mackie being in the movie, though, because another hitman kills him… who’s played by John Cho! Then he gets killed by another hitman… played by Sebastian Stan! That’s another MCU guy! Oh man!! Much later in the film, Ryan Reynolds shows up to play a different assassin. Holy cow! Ghosted was co-written by the guys who do the Deadpool films! So, clearly, they’re all buddies! It’s so fun having all these big-name celebrities palling around together!!
That, in fact, was not my response to seeing these actors slumming it in Ghosted, but that’s the desired effect. Much like on Family Guy, where we’ve been trained to point and chuckle at any pop-culture shout-out, pleased with ourselves for recognizing the reference, Ghosted is but the latest comedy that assumes we’ll automatically find it hilarious that a mega-star would deign to put in a brief appearance in somebody else’s movie. Hey, we know that guy from the other thing! But he’s in this thing, too!
Not all recent comedy cameos are bad. I thought Brad Pitt was great as the cartoonishly ultra-macho CIA operative in The Lost City. (Honestly, the movie never recovers after his character kicks the bucket.) With the right role, a superstar can have a blast despite a brief amount of screentime. But even The Lost City doesn’t really count in terms of surprise star cameos since Pitt’s name was on the poster — you knew he was coming. I’m thinking more about the actors we didn’t expect to see because they weren’t part of the initial advertising. Sometimes, they can be funny. (Think Channing Tatum in This Is the End.) But often, the gag just feels labored. (Think Channing Tatum in Free Guy.)
It’s now been 14 years since one of the best and most surprising star cameos. Folks who paid money to see Zombieland were ready for undead mayhem starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. They weren’t expecting the characters to go to Bill Murray’s house — and for Bill Murray himself to show up.
There are plenty of reasons why that Zombieland cameo was so fun. First of all, it was just the sheer weirdness of it: “What is Bill Murray doing in this movie?” Of course, the fact that Murray was, essentially, playing himself made it even better, but back in 2009, we just didn’t see a lot of star cameos like that. A-listers spend their entire careers creating a mystique and being super-selective about the huge projects they take on. Murray’s appearance in Zombieland slyly mocked such Hollywood self-importance. It was just Murray having a laugh.
That’s generally the spirit in which most surprise star cameos are undertaken: “Sure, I’m a huge deal, but I don’t take myself too seriously — why else would I do something like this?” That’s how we got Brad Pitt in Deadpool 2 or Matt Damon in Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder. And more often than not, these cameos prove to be a litmus test for the movie: If I find the cameo funny, I’m probably enjoying the film as a whole. And if it’s something deeply mediocre like Ghosted, then the tiresome cameos just make me angrier about the piece of crap I’m sitting through.
In our franchise era, we’ve gotten used to unannounced cameos, each one meant to delight us or strike some nostalgic chord. Every time Sony tries to reboot Ghostbusters, it’s a safe bet that we’ll see stars from the original movies pop up in tiny guest roles. (Howdy, Sigourney Weaver!) Why are they there? To elicit a Pavlovian positive reaction out of fans. It’s funny to watch people respond to these cameos: It’s always a mixture of laughter and just generally happy confusion. Hey, I do it, too, sometimes, so I’m not immune. But what exactly are we reacting to? We’re pleasantly surprised that this person is there. We didn’t think we’d see them! Yet here they are! I guess it’s the same impulse as when you spot a friend in public you haven’t seen in forever. We’re just happy to know that person is still around and doing good.
But bad filmmakers weaponize our collective goodwill to try to force something amusing into their painfully unfunny movies. Perhaps you have forgotten that Ed Sheeran showed up in Red Notice. Or that Ryan Reynolds was in Bullet Train. Rarely do you have the truly brilliant WTF-ness of Tom Cruise’s unhinged cameo in 2008’s Tropic Thunder — a year before Zombieland — in which there’s real effort made to have the surprise appearance actually be clever and worthwhile. Too often now, the desired effect of most surprise cameos is simply “Oh, huh, look, there’s Anthony Mackie.” It comes across as smug and cynical. Apparently, all we need as an audience is a big, shiny cameo and we’ll think we’re having a good time.
These sorts of cameos used to be so much fresher. Remember all the stars Will Ferrell corralled to play the rival news teams in Anchorman? Remember how funny that was? And now, remember how much less funny it was when they repeated the bit for Anchorman 2? What makes surprise cameos work is, well, the surprise. But we sorta were anticipating that the sequel would bring back the same gag, and likewise comedies in general have prepared us to expect this overdone style of joke. Honestly, I rarely laugh at them anymore. Mostly, I just think about the logistics. How much do you have to pay Ryan Reynolds to be on the Ghosted set for, like, 10 minutes? Does Ana de Armas feel left out when Chris Evans is hanging out with all his old MCU buddies? And who pays for dinner when they all go out afterward?
If I’m thinking about stuff like that, I’m definitely not thinking about what’s supposed to be funny about the cameo — or the movie itself. And in the case of Ghosted, the uninspired cameos are indicative of the film’s generally lazy approach to comedy. In the movie, characters yell really loud when they’re trying to be funny. Dumb running jokes get run into the ground. And, every once in a while, you have to endure a smirking celebrity cameo. At the start of Ghosted, there’s a disclaimer: “The following contains sequences of flashing lights or patterns.” I propose a new warning system be implemented for unsuspecting viewers about to watch bad comedies: “The following contains a pointless Ryan Reynolds appearance.”