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How 'Jack' hopped away with a PG rating

January 28, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

If there's one thing critics have agreed on this year, it's that "Kangaroo Jack" -- made by Castle Rock and distributed by Warner Bros. -- is a forgettable movie. Although the movie has made $35 million over the last 10 days, reviewers have dismissed the film as a "witless escapade" and "a numskull comedy," with one depressed scribe saying that it "left me wanting to kill myself."

The critics agree on another point: The PG-rated comedy, which revolves around two bumbling crooks trying to retrieve $50,000 in mob money from a kangaroo in the Australian Outback, is profoundly unsuitable for young kids. The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie includes a scene in which heat-dazed crooks Jerry O'Connell and Anthony Anderson spot supermodel Estella Warren, playing a wildlife conservationist, standing before them. As the Washington Post's Desson Howe describes it, "Thinking she's a mirage, [O'Connell] clamps both his hands on her breasts and declares, 'Hey, these feel so real!' " There's also a testicle joke, a wet tank-top scene with Warren under a waterfall, a chase sequence with shotgun fire and a scene where a villain puts a knife at O'Connell's throat and snarls, "I'm going to carve you up piece by piece."

Would it come as a shock if I told this you this movie has been advertised every morning on Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and other children's TV outlets?

Many parents have written in to ask: How on earth did this film get a PG rating? And why do Warner Bros.' TV spots sell it as a cute-talking kangaroo movie, when the kangaroo talks in only one scene? Having seen the movie, I'm with them. "I was really upset by the violence and sexual innuendo," said one mother who took her 7-year-old daughter to see the film. "I'd read a bad review, but it didn't say there was anything offensive in the film, and the commercials were running on Nick Jr., so I thought it must be a family film."

Peter Greene, a media-savvy parent with a son approaching his seventh birthday, complained via e-mail: "What upsets me here is that Castle Rock (one of whose partners just happens to be Rob Reiner), Jerry Bruckheimer and Warner Bros. Pictures all worked together to make sure the film received a PG rating, knowing it was the only so-called family film released over the holiday weekend. We all know if it was rated PG-13 it wouldn't have done as well at the box office. The person I am most disappointed in is Rob Reiner, who is a champion of many kids' causes."

Reiner, who spearheaded the 1998 campaign to pass Proposition 10, which funds early childhood development programs, didn't respond to my interview request, leaving it to a spokesman to explain that he had nothing to do with the making of the film.

However, Greene's complaint about the rating is right on the money. The PG rating, which has been assigned to such films as "Shrek," "Stuart Little" and "Spy Kids," supposedly offers a clear signal to parents that they can safely take their kids to a movie without subjecting them to sex, violence or gross humor.

As Bruckheimer acknowledged: "We had to get that rating. The PG was incredibly important."

To understand how a movie with an actress who ranked No. 1 on Maxim's Hot Babe List ended up being advertised on "SpongeBob," we need to retrace the fascinating history of "Kangaroo Jack."

The film was the brainchild of "Con Air" screenwriter Scott Rosenberg and "Missing in Action" co-creator Steve Bing, who is best known, alas, for getting his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, pregnant. As Rosenberg recalls, "We were drinking in a bar when Steve told me the story as if it had really happened to these two guys and I said, 'That's the greatest idea in the world. Let's sell it.' It ended up being the highest-selling comedy pitch ever." Originally titled "Down and Under," the script was designed as a cool "Midnight Run"-style mob comedy, with plenty of thrills and sexy action for its teenage core audience. The kangaroo was a minor character.

Bruckheimer, who is Disney Studios' top producer, outbid a host of rivals. "I loved the idea," he recalls. "It was interesting, clever and I hadn't seen a film with a kangaroo in years." There was just one glitch. Then-Disney studio chief Joe Roth, believing mob comedies were passe, passed on the project. So Bruckheimer took it to Castle Rock, which had initially bid on the pitch. As he does on most of his films, Bruckheimer brought in scores of writers to punch up the script. Participants included such well-known comedy hands as Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell, the Farrelly Brothers, Gary Ross and Max Frye.

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