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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Comedies unjustly take their pratfalls

May 27, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Tom SHADYAC has directed three consecutive $100-million-plus comedy hits. His latest film, "Bruce Almighty," which made an estimated $86.4 million this weekend, will easily be his fourth. But to hear his critics tell it, Shadyac is right up there with Saddam and Osama as a scourge of Western civilization.

The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter didn't mince words: "If the road to hell is paved with self-deluding good intentions, then the makers of the appalling Jim Carrey comedy 'Bruce Almighty' are headed to the devil's rotisserie for an eternity as gyros." Or as Premiere magazine's Glenn Kenny succinctly put it: "This picture can be summed up in two words -- God awful."

The soft-spoken 43-year-old director, who with his shoulder-length hair and frumpy sweatshirts looks more like a guitarist you'd see on tour with Jackson Browne than a mega-hit filmmaker, makes comedies in a business where comedy is considered a second-class art form. Directors like Shadyac, who layer their comedies with in-your-face sentimentality, are especially reviled.

His new comedy stars Carrey as a self-absorbed TV news reporter who, after being fired from his job, meets God (Morgan Freeman), who challenges him to make the world a better place. His 1998 hit "Patch Adams" focused on a doctor, played by Robin Williams, who cures sick kids with laughter. "Liar Liar," Shadyac's biggest hit, stars Carrey as a lawyer whose neglected son, crushed by his dad's transparent excuses for missing his 5th birthday party, magically gets his wish of having his father go a full 24 hours without telling a lie.

If only those same subjects had been presented as drama, Shadyac would have a reserved, front-row seat at the Kodak Theatre. Bathos and sentiment are amply rewarded at Oscar time, hence the academy's fondness for such gooey hooey as "Life Is Beautiful," "The Green Mile" and "Chocolat." But Shadyac has been raked over the coals because he mixes spiritual uplift with large servings of scatological humor.

This mix of slapstick and schmaltz has driven critics bug-eyed. Reviewing "Patch Adams," Roger Ebert grumbled: " 'Patch Adams' made me want to spray the screen with Lysol. This movie is shameless. It's not merely a tear-jerker. It extracts tears individually by liposuction, without anesthesia."

Shadyac doesn't see a contradiction in mixing slapstick and sentiment. "For me, it's not at all unusual to be on the set, having Jim talk out of his butt and then go home and read St. Thomas of Aquinas or Thomas Merton," he says. "To me, that's life. The extremes don't just exist, they feed each other."

This isn't just about Shadyac. A generation of comics and comic directors haven't gotten their props -- except at the box office. When it comes to crowd-pleasing comedy, there's never been a bigger gulf between audiences and critics, who've given scathing reviews to a string of recent comedy hits, including "Bringing Down the House" and "Anger Management." As Jennifer Aniston says in "Bruce Almighty," "There's nothing wrong with making people laugh." But like heavy-metal crooners and arena-football quarterbacks, comic filmmakers and performers get no respect, be it from critics or from Oscar voters.

The motion picture academy always hires a comic to host the Oscars, but members would rather arm-wrestle with Harvey Weinstein than give a best actor or actress statue to a comedian (unless someone puts away the clown makeup and plays a serious role, as Roberto Benigni did in "Life Is Beautiful.") You'd have to go back a quarter of a century, to Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," to find a comedy that won best picture. Whether it's Carrey, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Albert Brooks, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, the Marx brothers or Mel Brooks, who amazingly has never won for a movie he directed, the outcome for comedy performances is the same: zero Oscars.

Today's critics are just as comedy-blind. I found "Patch" just as cloying as my critical brethren, but there's a reason why "Bruce Almighty" is such a monster hit. Its comic portrait of a man's spiritual rebirth strikes a resonant chord with the average moviegoer, even if its aesthetic strikes critics as hopelessly cheesy.

Most comics never get their due until they've left the Friars Club on a gurney. Take "The In-Laws," the other new comedy opening this weekend. To hear the critics tell it, the remake, which stars Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks, is a dumbed-down knockoff of the 1979 comedy classic. I'd call that wishful revisionism. When the original film arrived, critics like the Washington Post's Gary Arnold dismissed it as "a heavy-handed, smugly cynical farce that relies on the willingness of spectators to play along with whatever gag occurs to the filmmakers at a given moment."

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