Even the biggest movie stars can make films that get swallowed up in the black hole of public indifference. Does anybody even remember this spring’s Oscar, starring Sly Stallone, or The Hard Way, starring Michael J. Fox? Critics threw brickbats at them both, and no one other than the stars’ stoutest fans paid to see the films: Each grossed about $24 million, a pittance compared with Stallone’s and Fox’s usual pull. These aren’t notorious stinkers like Hudson Hawk; they’re something more curious: resume blips that barely register as background noise in the pop-culture marketplace.

Before video, such blips remained obscure, conjured up only by film scholars and late-night TV. But the advent of overnight rentals means that even a star’s oddest tangent can be subject to scrutiny every night of the year. Any superstar will have at least one of these, and they often say more about a performer’s career strategies than the better-known hits do.

The very strange Oscar, for instance, apparently represents Sly Stallone’s attempt at light, fizzy farce — just the kind of project Michael J. Fox specializes in. But that approach is so spectacularly misjudged that the movie ends up perversely entertaining in spite of itself. At least credit Stallone and director John Landis (Trading Places) with trying to do something different, but how long do they think casual renters will watch this Damon Runyon-esque cute-gangster comedy before reaching for the fast-forward button?

Oscar‘s central conceit is so off that watching the film is like sitting through a bad high school play. Stallone plays Angelo ”Snaps” Provolone, a wealthy Prohibition-era bootlegger who wants to go straight. Taking place in his mansion in the space of one morning, Oscar is structured as ”classic” stage farce: You get a lot of slamming doors, mixed identities, and, of course, the three identical suitcases. But if this genre is to work on film (and it hasn’t since 1973’s What’s Up, Doc?), it needs timing with a supertight turning radius. Unfortunately, timing is not what Sylvester Stallone is about. Making like Rocky Marciano, yes; Cary Grant, no.

While his tone of lurching joie de vivre seems out to lunch, Stallone almost makes Oscar work once he just relaxes and plays host to the weirdly diverse cast — most of whom bring a little zing to this museum piece. Any movie that gives you Vincent Spano, Harry Shearer, Ornella Muti, Kurtwood Smith, Peter Riegert, Joey Travolta, Don Ameche, Eddie Bracken, Tim Curry, and in a cameo, Kirk Douglas is worth a look-see, if only as an exercise in wasted resources. D+

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  • 109 minutes