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Fall Sneaks

Just When You Least Expect It

Summer's action flicks and comedies are history. Now studios want to spring a few surprises--the darker the better.

September 08, 2002|ANNE VALDESPINO

"Punch-Drunk Love" is called a "romantic comedy," but from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights"), expect something different.

It's about an angry guy who cries inexplicably, buys cases of chocolate pudding to earn frequent flier miles, and busts glass when he blows his stack. His newfound love, played by Emily Watson, fuels a raging fire within him. Will he go mano a mano with the bad guy, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman? And which crazed hombre will be the last man standing?

The craziest part of it all, though, is that the angry-guy hero is played by ... Adam Sandler. It's a scary side of the funny man audiences have never seen, and it's as astounding as watching Jackie Gleason in "The Hustler" or Jerry Lewis in "The King of Comedy."

It's the time of year in the movie business when the unexpected becomes the norm and the term "adult audience" isn't an oxymoron. Summer is over, and the endless sequels, blockbusters, comedies and flashy action flicks aimed at teens have been washed away with the rolling surf. When kids go back to school, studios get, well, more studious--and more adventurous.

Sure, there are some big pictures, like the days-of-British-empire epic "The Four Feathers"; the artsy "Frida"; the "Silence of the Lambs" prequel, "Red Dragon"; the "Charade" remake "The Truth About Charlie." And there's lighthearted fare too, including "Sweet Home Alabama," a romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon; a Jackie Chan family-friendly action comedy, "The Tuxedo"; the Eddie Murphy-Owen Wilson comedy "I Spy"; and the kids film "Jonah--A Veggietales Movie."

But overall, fall is the time studios use to get that offbeat, thought-provoking or absolutely uncategorizable movie into the theaters, and give it time to develop Oscar legs or at least some highly profitable word-of-mouth buzz.

Tom Sherak of Revolution Studios, which is releasing "Punch-Drunk Love" on Oct. 11, says the season is an ideal time for the film. "You wouldn't put this in summer because in summer it's one movie eating up another and this movie needs to breathe. This is 'Get the movie open and let the public catch on.' "

There's an animated film in the fall as well, but true to the season, it's not the kind American audiences are used to. "Miyazaki's Spirited Away," an epic-sized tale by revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is being released Sept. 20 in a new English-language version by Disney. In the fall, even the cartoons have artistic pretensions.

Here are some of the other fall highlights:

Darker Tales

"Punch-Drunk Love" joins the ranks of fall films that touch on edgier topics and deeper themes. It's not unusual for the season. Past autumn releases have included "Training Day" (2001) and "American Beauty" (1999)--and remember, both of them ended up winning some major Oscars.

Moviegoers seem to warm up to challenging subjects as the weather cools off. This year there's "The Rules of Attraction" (Oct. 11), an adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel about privileged kids in an Ivy League college who fill their empty souls with sex and drugs, and "The Grey Zone" (Oct. 11), director Tim Blake Nelson's Holocaust drama.

Also in the not-a-lot-of-laughs category is "Das Experiment," a German drama in which a group of men submit to a psychological study, playing the roles of inmates and guards in a prison. In the beginning they meet, chat and become friendly. But once the experiment starts, they quickly turn against each other.

"The biggest issue presented here is that your next-door neighbor who you view as a nice, friendly guy can turn out to be a beast, and I think it's more true than not," said Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, which is releasing the film Sept. 20.

"Auto Focus" (Oct. 18), a different stripe of biopic on the life of Bob Crane, star of "Hogan's Heroes," is also a walk on the wild side. Greg Kinnear plays Crane, a hard-working suburban dad who seems straight out of a '60s sitcom until he meets John Carpenter (not the movie director), played by Willem Dafoe. The two share their sexual addiction and love of video photography. Is it a biopic or one of the darkest buddy films ever made?

Director Paul Schrader, who jokingly referred to it as "Oscar and Felix make a porn movie," said the chemistry between laid-back Kinnear and edgy Dafoe, drives the film. "Greg is quintessentially West Coast and Willem is quintessentially East Coast--even though they're both Midwesterners. They hit it off great and they became and remain friends."

Carpenter is the enabler who leads Crane into a world of self-gratification and self-absorption, hence the title.

"I think that his sin, if he had one, was not sex but selfishness," Schrader said. "Because he was good-looking and funny and a TV celebrity, he could behave the way he wanted and people always forgave him."

Films for Women

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