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Hollywood Stoops to Conquer

From 'Austin Powers' to 'American Pie,' outrageous comedy has stolen the show from bloated-budget action pictures as studios cultivate a loyal and lucrative audience of adolescent boys.

July 11, 1999|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

When Adam Herz, the 26-year-old screenwriter of "American Pie," was asked to write a paper for a college film class at the University of Michigan, he picked a subject dear to his heart: "Porky's." His term paper, titled "The Gross-Out Cinema," was an analysis of one of the outrageously vulgar moments in modern film: the shower scene from "Porky's."

"In a lot of ways, 'American Pie' started as a joke with my friends and me in college because we kept thinking, 'Whatever happened to "Porky's"?' " he says. "When I decided to write a teenage party movie, I looked at a lot of movies like 'Animal House' and 'Revenge of the Nerds,' but the key movie was always 'Porky's.' It's the classic."

Classic might not be the first word you think of for "Porky's," but for anyone who's been to the movies lately, it's impossible not to have noticed that the spirit of that 1981 film lives on. The gross-out comedy is back, even more crude, lewd and infantile than ever.

Since 1994, when the back-to-back success of "Dumb and Dumber" and "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" made Jim Carrey an overnight star, a string of raucous films devoted to the celebration of stupidity has transformed youth comedies into a carnival of jokes about spit, vomit, farts, dildos, diarrhea, premature ejaculation, talking turds, semen in your hair, semen in your beer--let's just say that no bodily part, fluid or excretion is off limits.

Action guys may have dominated the '80s--remember Stallone and Schwarzenegger?--but now it's the kings of lowbrow comedy who rule. Carrey is now a $20-million-a-movie star; Adam Sandler and Mike Myers figure to make at least that much in the future. Sandler's "The Waterboy" grossed $160 million last year, while his new film, "Big Daddy," opened even bigger than "The Waterboy," with $41 million in its first weekend; it has taken in about $100 million so far.

Meanwhile, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the bad-boy creators of the scatological "South Park" TV series and its new spinoff film, "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," have been celebrated as "fin de siecle comics" by no less than Rolling Stone. And industry insiders have been abuzz for months about "American Pie," the raunchy teen comedy that revolves around the time-honored adolescent male ritual of trying to lose one's virginity.

The box-office payoff has been huge. The Farrelly brothers' "There's Something About Mary," last summer's breakout comedy hit, made $176 million, making it the highest-grossing R-rated comedy since "Beverly Hills Cop." Myers' "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" is expected to hit the $200-million mark at the box office.

A decade ago, it was the Hollywood action movie that created bigger-than-life heroes whose exploits were brash and outrageous, serving as fantasy fulfillments for the average young moviegoer. Now it's comedy that provides as much unbridled excess and cheap thrills as anything you could find in "Eraser."

"Kids want humor. Comedy is part of the zeitgeist today," says New Line Cinema production president Michael De Luca, whose studio made "Dumb and Dumber" and the "Austin Powers" films. "People want to see someone poke fun at authority, to take the wind out of the windbags of our society. The 1980s were very politically correct--the culture wasn't into irreverent satire or gross-out humor. But as the '90s developed, TV shows like 'The Simpsons' and the Farrellys' films signaled a new attitude. Suddenly you could make fun of a lot of sacred cows--everybody was fair game."

Virtually every major studio is scrambling to develop or revive any project that could be a pants-around-your-ankles comic hit.

* "Me, Myself and Irene," a Farrellys film starring Carrey, is due next summer from 20th Century Fox.

* New Line has a two-picture deal with Sandler and is already salivating over a third "Austin Powers" film.

* Stone and Parker are writing a prequel for "Dumb and Dumber."

* Disney is making "Deuce," starring "Big Daddy" supporting player Rob Schneider, who plays a fish-tank cleaner who becomes a reluctant gigolo.

* Paul and Chris Weitz, who respectively directed and co-produced "American Pie," are penning a sequel to "The Nutty Professor," while Herz is doing an update of "Smokey and the Bandit," both for Universal Pictures.

"Everybody wants a comedy with an edge," says Alan Gasmer, a top spec-script agent at the William Morris Agency. "Nobody's ever said, 'Get me another 'Mummy.' They all want another 'Something About Mary.' Everybody says, 'What have you got that's outrageous?' "

Gasmer recently sent out "Richard," a script about a guy who loses his penis--don't ask how--and can't get it back until he makes amends to women he's treated badly in the past. Said one studio executive, who passed: "We're already doing a penis movie."

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