The IMDB.O. List: Is ‘The Master of Disguise’ Really One of the Worst Movies Ever Made?
In The IMDB.O. List, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer watches every single movie on the Internet Movie Database’s Lowest Rated Movies list to determine whether they truly are the worst movies ever made. Previous chapters can be found here.
Movie #3: The Master of Disguise (2002)
Director: Perry Andelin Blake
Writers: Dana Carvey, Harris Goldberg
Release Date: August 2, 2002
U.S. box office: $43.4 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 1 percent
Metacritic score: 12
Letterboxd average grade: 1.5
IMDb Bottom 100 Ranking: 48
Is This Movie Bad?
Oh god, yes.
How Bad Is It?
It’s so bad it’s hard to believe it’s not an official Saturday Night Live movie. The idea isn’t awful — or at least it’s easy to understand how a rational studio executive would green light the concept. By the late 1990s, Dana Carvey was one of the most beloved comedians in America, thanks to his long run as a star of SNL. Carvey was an incredible mimic with a knack for memorable characters and catchphrases, skills that made him a perfect SNL cast member but weren’t necessarily well-suited to movies. How do you make a Hollywood comedy with a traditional narrative that takes advantage of Carvey’s gifts for playing multiple characters?
The sensible solution the filmmakers settled on was to cast Carvey as a guy who played multiple characters. Enter Pistachio Disguisey, a humble and impossibly naive man-child who works as a waiter in his parents’ Italian restaurant. Pistacio is a natural mimic (even though he speaks with a heavy Italian accent), a skill he picked up from his dad (James Brolin) and grandfather (Harold Gould) and all his ancestors in the Disguisey clan. For centuries, the Disguiseys secretly protected the world as masters of disguise. (Thank goodness their last name was Disguisey and not, say, Janitory.) After Pistachio’s parents are kidnapped by an evil supervillain (Brent Spiner), it’s up to Pistacio to learn the family business and rescue them.
Again, the concept is relatively sound; it gives Dana Carvey an onscreen excuse to go full Carvey within the confines of a feature-length story. Unfortunately, there was a flaw embedded at the plan’s core. Carvey is a master of impressions, not a master of disguise, and those are not the same thing. A true master of disguise would lose himself completely in his roles and become invisible. That’s the opposite of Carvey’s approach to comedy. His style of impressions involved exaggerating and expanding a famous person’s tics. The first President Bush didn’t go around constantly screaming “Nah gah do it!” but Carvey took the man’s genuine circumspection further and further over the top until it became a hysterical caricature. All of his characters, whether based on historical figures or not, worked this same way. Carvey’s comedy is larger than life. It’s the opposite of invisible.
As a result, Pistachio is a pretty f—ing awful master of disguise. You would have to be an absolute idiot not to recognize him when he shows up to a party as Al Pacino from Scarface or Robert Shaw from Jaws. As impressions go, they’re both impressive as hell. As devices within a story about a guy sneaking around a party in disguise, they just make everyone onscreen look like a moron. It sours the whole concept
Plus, when Carvey isn’t playing a recognizable movie star, his creations are so creepy that The Master of Disguise plays more like a secret horror movie than an action comedy. In the film’s most infamous sequence, he “sneaks into” a place called the Turtle Club by “disguising” himself as a genuinely disturbing human/turtle hybrid.
That scene is truly troubling but for my money the less-famous part where Carvey sneaks into Spiner’s lair by dressing like a giant cherry pie is even more worse:
In a 40-year career in horror, David Cronenberg never dreamed up an image as chilling or stomach-churning as Dana Carvey as a human turtle or a giant walking cherry pie. Nightmare fuel this pure could power the city from Monsters Inc. for a year.
The parts of Master of Disguise that aren’t actively disgusting are low-key nauseating for other reasons. Although the film is only 17 years old, much of its comedy has aged poorly. Pistachio first practices his disguise abilities by becoming an Indian snakecharmer so stereotypical (complete with turban and brownface makeup). And Pistachio’s “romantic” relationship with his assistant and love interest (Jennifer Esposito) is creepy too; her entire job interview for the position as his sidekick is essentially one giant act of sexual harassment. They talk about her “tiny butt” and when she points out that they are doing this right in front of her, they switch to speaking Italian and continue to mock her physique.
Later, these two jerks make poor Jennifer Eposito come on to Brent Spiner to help solve the case. Someone needs to #MeToo Pistachio Disguisey pronto.
Clocking in at barely 70 minutes before closing credits (which also includes a scene where a little person dressed like Mario from Super Mario Bros. chases Dana Carvey around for absolutely no reason), The Master of Disguise at least has the benefit of being short. Those 70 minutes, though, are mighty painful — not to mention strange, uncomfortable, and unfunny. The film is so drastically cut down from whatever was originally intended — with awkward dissolves connecting disparate scenes — that it’s not even clear whether the masters of disguise using fancy masks (which seems to be the case in some scenes) or actually change the shape of their bodies using a mystical energy known as “energico” (which is described in one early sequence and then mostly forgotten). Director Perry Andelin Blake, a production designer by trade, never made another movie after The Master of Disguise. No one who has watched this movie would be shocked by that fact.
Does It Belong On a List of the Worst Movies Ever Made?
I’ve sat through worse (’sup Oogieloves?), but there’s no disguising the crappiness. I’d say its placement in the middle of the IMDb Bottom 100 feels just about right.
The Master of Disguise is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Next time on The IMDB.O. List: I go ballistic! [quiet voice] Ecks vs. Sever.
My Personal Ranking of the IMDB.O. List So Far (Original Ranking in Parenthesis):
- The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure (100)
- The Master of Disguise (48)
- The Avengers (69)
Gallery - The Worst Movie Posters Ever Made: