The Hunt For The Worst Movie Of All Time: Nell

Gabe Delahaye | June 13, 2011 - 5:36 pm

I know that this cannot possibly be true, but I remember Nell being a really big deal when it came out. I mean, it was a big enough deal, Jodie Foster was nominated for an Academy Award and stuff, but I remember it being a big deal among kids at my school. That can’t be possible, can it? Why would kids have cared about this movie? Kids didn’t care about this movie. But that is how I remember it. Maybe the girls in my school wanted to be Nell? “Oooh, can you imagine? Living in a cabin in the forest all your life and speaking a silly made up language? Dreams really do come true for a lucky few, I guess.” That is my impression of a very real, very believable teenage girl from the mid-1990s. “I wish I was Nell, now let’s go listen to Dinosaur Jr. and drink OK.” I am quite confident that my memory is wrong and that I’m somehow conflating an NPR news piece I overheard in my mom’s car with genuine teenage enthusiasm. Surely everyone was too busy fucking and smoking weed to pay much attention to Jodie Foster’s portrayal of a “wild woman” in Michael Apted’s adaptation of a play. Anyway, now that we are all grown ups, let’s talk about this movie:

So, Nell is this lady who lives in a cabin in the woods and was raised by her mother. When the movie starts, her mom has died and a doctor (Liam Neeson) comes out to the house to see what’s up and that’s when he finds Nell. Hi, Nell! Nell screams. She has never been out of the house during the day, and has no electricity or running water or iPods or anything. She is a “wild woman.” In order to best determine how to help her, Liam Neeson meets with a child psychologist, played by his real-life wife, Natasha Richardson (R.I.P.). Natasha Richardson wants to put Nell into a hospital and study her, but Liam Neeson shows up in court and is like, no, don’t, and the court is like, “you have three months to study her in her natural habitat.” Wait, what? You guys, I’m not a lawyer, but the legal aspects of this movie seem very bizarre! Like, on what grounds do either of these people have claims for what happens to the lady in the woods? Maybe the state could make an argument for why she needs to be institutionalized, but surely two separate private citizens are not in charge of this? Anyway, they get a house boat and go out to study Nell. (Early on, in the houseboat, Liam Neeson is making fun of Natasha Richardson for her city ways, and says “no air conditioning, are you OK breathing raw air?” I would understand if he had something to say about the heat or something, but pretty sure air conditioning isn’t supposed to improve the “breathing quality” of the air? What is this movie talking about ever?)

Study study study. Nell Nell Nell. They learn how to speak her language. It’s some form of gibberish English, which doesn’t make a lot of sense since she was raised by her mother who was ostensibly a normal human being? But OK. They also learn that her mother got pregnant with her by being raped. Yikes. Liam Neeson in particular seems really into Nell in a way that is a little bit creepy, even when he insists that it’s not creepy. There is one conversation in particular that he has with Natasha Richardson on the houseboat one night while they are watching Nell skinny dip in the lake (?!) that is supposed to explain where he is coming from but actually does not explain it and if anything makes it way weirder? It goes like this:

Natasha Richardson: We shouldn’t be watching this.
Liam Neeson: Why?
Natasha Richardson: She’s naked.
Liam Neeson: So? I think she’s beautiful.
Natasha Richardson:
Liam Neeson: Do you think I want to abuse the patient-doctor relationship? Just because I think she’s beautiful doesn’t mean I want to have sexual intercourse with her.
Natasha Richardson:
Liam Neeson: I also think you’re beautiful.

HIDE YOUR NELLS, HIDE YOUR NATASHA RICHARDSON, WE RAPING EVERYBODY UP IN HERE. Good God that is a horrifying one-sided conversation for one person to have with another person alone in the woods. Anyway, people in town find out about Nell and you know what that means: news helicopters. Hahaha. You know how you are always watching the news and there is helicopter footage of someone who lives in a cabin? GET THE SCOOP!

Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson take Nell into the city, because somehow that’s better? Now she is institutionalized in the hospital, so Liam Neeson kidnaps her. He kind of does a crappy job of it, but luckily it is the Disorderlies hospital.

Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson and Nell end up back in court. Sure. I mean, the courtroom stuff makes basically no sense, but at least it is consistently ridiculous. Now they want to put Nell away for good because in the hospital she ran into a glass wall. Liam Neeson insists that she is a fully capable and beautiful Wolf Child who should just go live in the woods, but the judge is like “objection!” Finally, though, NELL GETS UP AND TESTIFIES IN COURT IN HER WEIRD LANGUAGE. This, apparently, is allowed. No one says anything. No objections are raised. Liam Neeson translates for her, and apparently that is admissible evidence? She says a bunch of stupid junk and the judge lets her go home.

The movie ends a couple years later and Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson are married with children, and they go to visit Nell whose abandoned nightmare cabin is now the perfect summer home. FIRE UP THE GRILL IT IS BARBECUE TIME!

Oh, right, I almost forgot: Nell used to have a sister, who I think killed herself by walking into the lake when she was 8 years old? That seems very young for someone to kill themselves, but it would be hard not to have any cartoons.

One of the weirdest things about Nell is that it’s based on a play. What I mean is, the whole thing is made up, and that’s weird! Obviously lots of stuff is made up in the movies. Most of it, really. But when you’re dealing with a particularly unique psychological situation you kind of expect that to be based on something that happened to someone. But this didn’t. It’s just some dude being like, “what would it be like if a lady grew up in a cabin and made up a new language? Let me pretend it’s like this.” Huh? I guess that does explain why none of the lawyers make any sense. “If I can make up a psychological condition that does not exist in recorded human history, surely I can make up the laws binding our society together.” It also explains why he thinks this would be The Biggest News Story of the year. “Everyone would probably be pretty interested in this thing I just made up.” But otherwise it’s just weird.

Then, of course, there is the whole “never go full retard” thing. I mean, Jodie Foster is a perfectly decent actress, and I guess what do I know because the Academy did see fit to nominate her for acting’s highest award for this performance, but it sure seems corny and embarrassing! Like, I mean:

If anyone should have gotten an award for this movie, it was Liam Neeson for keeping a straight face during his scenes with Jodie Foster. Very professional. He only broke character and shouted “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS, THIS IS EMBARRASSING” twice. Other less talented actors would have done this much more regularly. Although, Jodie Foster did deserve her win for Best Making This Face A Lot, 1994:

Did you know that this movie features both Nick Searcy and Jeremy Davies? It’s like a Justified season 2 reunion but in reverse chronological order! Neat! Strangely, they play a cop and a hillbilly. No typecasto.

Nell is not the worst movie of all time. It’s not even really on the list. Yes, the acting is sometimes laughable, and there are some things that just don’t make sense, like at one point in the end of the movie Liam Neeson starts talking to Natasha Richardson in Nell’s language? But it’s just a private conversation between the two of them? Why is he doing that? Stop it. The “evil” doctor from the institution who wants to put Nell away always says things that make no sense. Like, he points out that Nell was raised in the woods, and so she has “never seen a car, or a television, or a gun, or a Hershey bar.” Wait, a car and television, sure, but a gun? A Hershey bar? These hardly seem to be the things that people MUST have personal interaction with in order to function in modern society. (He also says, later, that if the news finds out about Nell–because always with the news, this movie, who directed this, Sarah Palin?–that Nell is going to need a lawyer and an agent. No she is not.) The movie is certainly pretentious, especially considering that it’s all just make believe. And the final courtroom scene in which it turns out that Nell was really the one who was teaching US the whole time commits the worst offense of all: being tired and predictable.

Personally, I had managed to live for 17 years without seeing Nell. The option of continuing to live my life without watching it has now closed. For me. But not for you. If you haven’t seen Nell, I highly suggest that you don’t! It’s just not very good!

Next week: Running With Scissors. As always, please leave your suggestions in the comments or in an email. And if you haven’t done so already, please consult the Official Rules.