John Travolta is one of our best actors. Why is he in so many terrible movies?

John Travolta is one of our best actors. Why is he in so many terrible movies?
John Travolta in The Fanatic.

In The Fanatic, an idiotic new thriller directed by former Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, John Travolta plays a movie obsessive and autograph hound named Moose. He's socially maladjusted and most likely mentally ill, and his infatuation with a washed-up B-movie actor (Devon Sawa) begins as clingy and turns violent.

It's now available on VOD, and it's one of the worst, most inexplicable movies Travolta has ever appeared in, and he's been in some all-time howlers (Battlefield Earth, anyone?). What's perhaps most dispiriting is that he really seems to be trying his hardest, and failing badly.

It pains me to say this. I'm a big Travolta fan. I even have him framed — in the form of a poster for the 1981 Brian De Palma thriller Blow Out — on the wall of my home office. I love Saturday Night Fever and Grease, the two films that made Travolta the biggest star of the late '70s. Those movies prove how terrific he can be. He can sing and dance. He can do comedy, drama and action. He's cool, yet unafraid to be vulnerable or goofy. He's the rare screen presence who can simply turn toward the camera and make us wonder, "Who is that guy?"

I don't think I need to tell you that, post-Grease, Travolta's fame waxed and waned. It was Pulp Fiction that famously revitalized his career in 1994, leading to barn-burning starring roles in Get Shorty, Phenomenon, Michael and Face/Off. And then things dried up again, but this latest slump is even more dire than the last. So what happened... again? Is it his well-publicized role in the Church of Scientology? Is it the sexual misconduct allegations that have dogged him? Does he have the world's worst agent?

Let's look at the films themselves. Other than his Emmy-nominated performance as Robert Shapiro on the limited series American Crime Story, Travolta has mostly been turning up in movies that seem to have been made specifically to fill up a gas station Redbox. His Rotten Tomatoes profile lists five consecutive films with zero percent scores between 2016 and now; most of them weren't released in enough theaters to collect box office receipts.

Recognize any of his recent features? How about the Death Wish riff I Am Wrath? Or Trading Paint, where he stars as a racecar driver with a rebellious son? Have you seen The Poison Rose, a neo-noir co-starring the similarly slumming Morgan Freeman? Or the hilariously inept Gotti, an embarrassing Scorsese knockoff in which he scowled and mugged as the infamous crime boss?

Maybe you have seen one of those forgettable titles, because they often pop up for weeklong engagements in Spokane theaters, likely because of the star's local ties. And a few of them, including The Fanatic, were co-produced by Richard Salvatore, who was behind such made-in-Spokane classics as Whacked!, starring Carmen Electra, and the Cuba Gooding Jr. vehicles End Game and Lies & Illusions.

But I shudder to think what could be beneath the bottom of the barrel that is The Fanatic. Travolta can be as magnetic as any performer alive, but all of his acting choices in this movie are fatal. It's not enough that he gave Moose a hunched posture and mannered hand gestures; he also dons a bizarre haircut, loud Hawaiian shirts and a bright purple kids' backpack. Moose feels like he shuffled out of a terrible improv exercise, wherein the actor merely grabbed a bunch of random props and then adopted an offensive caricature of a person on the autism spectrum (which Travolta has confirmed Moose is).

The movie is ugly and nihilistic and tone deaf, and it often feels like a vessel for Travolta to lash out at being back in show-biz jail. His target of his ire, though, is everyone — the Hollywood establishment, the paparazzi, the fans — but himself, and I'm afraid he's only got himself to blame. He needs to be thrown a lifesaver in the form of another Pulp Fiction. ♦