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Prepare for Good, Sick Fun

SUMMER SNEAKS

Summertime means action and animation. It also means being grossed out in the name of comedy.

May 07, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

Two years ago, it was hair gel. Last year, it was apple pie. This summer, it's French toast.

It seems that every summer, some scene in comedy is so gross or so stupid that it invariably becomes Topic A at the office water cooler. Soon, word of mouth has propelled the movie into becoming an unlikely blockbuster.

Remember Cameron Diaz's stiffened blond locks in the Farrelly brothers' 1998 comedy "There's Something About Mary"? Or Jason Biggs applying his love-making techniques to a freshly baked pie in last summer's teen comedy "American Pie"?

This summer, don't be surprised if the buzz is about the diner scene in "Road Trip," the Todd Phillips comedy about a group of college students driving to Texas to retrieve a videotape before a girlfriend can pop it in the VCR and discover her boyfriend has cheated on her. Let's just say breakfast at Denny's will never be the same after audiences see what the waiter does to the nerd guy's French toast order.

Ah, the summer movie season is once again upon us, a time when Hollywood dispenses with Oscar pretensions and gives moviegoers what they really want--guys hurling, cars careening, babes jiggling, blood oozing, animated creatures romping, all at decibel levels so deafening that ears can ring for days.

Purists, of course, argue that summer has become a "dead zone," where serious films get little marquee space next to films laced with rampant buffoonery, gratuitous violence and visual razzle-dazzle. Shouldn't Hollywood release summer films with compelling stories, intriguing plots and riveting dialogue?

Yeah, right.

Tell that to a 14-year-old and his video game-crazed buds who are out of school prowling the mall, or all those adults who never got around to seeing "Boys Don't Cry" or "The Insider." You can bet they're going to flock to the local megaplex the first chance they get to see "Dinosaur," "X-Men" or "M:I-2."

Sure, there's always Miramax to soothe those irritated eardrums. In fact, Miramax has not one, but two films based on the works of William Shakespeare. Well, sort of. "Hamlet," starring Ethan Hawke, is set in modern-day New York City, while "Love's Labour's Lost," directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, is set in the 1930s and features songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. But it's a start.

Meanwhile, DreamWorks plans to toss another lifeline to the purists: Woody Allen.

Allen's back in a light romantic comedy called "Small Time Crooks," which opens later this month. They say it's Woody as we used to know him, before all that messy stuff. In "Small Time Crooks," Allen plays an ex-con dishwasher and Tracey Ullman his manicurist wife. They dream of becoming rich the old-fashioned way--by robbing a bank in New York City.

But no one is expecting a Woody Allen film to gross anywhere near $100 million, the box-office benchmark determining blockbuster status. To do that, a filmmaker needs a gimmick. It might be stylized action, stupendous digital effects, a big movie star in a familiar genre or simply some French toast stuffed down a waiter's pants.

Don't knock gimmicks. If moviegoers shelled out more than $100 million to watch Ben Stiller get his appendage caught in his zipper in "There's Something About Mary," chances are pretty good that Martin Lawrence made up like a fat woman in "Big Momma's House" can be a huge hit too.

Unlike last summer, when the media focused on one movie, George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" (OK, maybe two--"Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" got its share of ink and promotions), this summer is wide open.

One thing is sure: Get ready for movies with high-testosterone levels, ranging from the retro (a remake of "Shaft") to the historical (Mel Gibson's "The Patriot") to the weirdly futuristic ("Battlefield Earth," starring John Travolta in a film based on the novel by Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard) to the comic-book world ("X-Men" and even the animated "Titan A.E.") to the Hong Kong-inspired (John Woo's "M:I-2"; "Shanghai Noon," starring Jackie Chan).

Male megastars are also back in full force. Tom, Mel, Harrison, Jim, Eddie, Clint, Nicolas and Will all star in major movies this summer. But what you won't see many of are "chick flicks." Before summer arrived, Julia Roberts rolled out her latest blockbuster, "Erin Brockovich," and it won't be until year's end that Drew, Cameron and Lucy deliver "Charlie's Angels."

*

The summer is crucial to various studios for various reasons:

* Sony Pictures Entertainment, which struggled much of last year until "Stuart Little" revived its fortunes, needs to show it can regularly turn out hits. It is now betting heavily that audiences are ready for a sprawling Revolutionary War film, "The Patriot," as well as a new twist on the old invisible man genre with the digital-effects-driven "Hollow Man."

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