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Seeing Whose Laughs Last

Adam Sandler and Mike Myers return, but to a new movie comedy landscape. It raises the question: Can their shtick stick it out?

May 25, 2008|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Are YOU ready for "Zohan" vs. "Guru"?

Next month, Adam Sandler ("You Don't Mess With the Zohan") and Mike Myers ("The Love Guru") will put out new movies -- pieces of funny business that will open with much fanfare and then fade away, before returning on DVD and pay-per-view and Netflix and the checkout line at Wal-Mart, if not also Borders, Best Buy and Ralphs, but probably not Whole Foods.

It's not just "Zohan" versus "Guru," though. It's Sandler, 41, matching up against Myers, who turns 45 today. They're fellow alums of "Saturday Night Live," both '90s comedy brands who now betray a certain negative creep on their ability to stay relevant, if not also funny, to the 14- to 18-year-old crowd. (Ageism hits comedians, too, as it does actresses.)

Actually, I wish these two movies were going head to head opening weekend, like contestants on "American Idol," instead of opening two weeks apart, like divorced parents with shared and amicable visitation rights to summer box office.

But the parents, Sony and Paramount, apparently have decided to give each other some much-needed space, and "Zohan" opens June 6, followed by "The Love Guru" on June 20.

Here's why "Zohan," I feel, will trump "Guru": It's got kickboxing. Funny, hyper-realized, Sandler-ian kickboxing. Also ultimate fighting and terrorism, which are so popular these days.

In the screwball "Zohan," Sandler plays a counterterrorist assassin for the Israeli government who fakes his death so he won't have to kill any more Palestinian militants and can realize his dream of becoming a hairstylist in America.

If "Zohan" has kickboxing, "Guru" has yoga. Based on the preview I saw, it's another in a series of Myers' lovey-dovey characters -- from Wayne of "Wayne's World" to Austin Powers to now, the peace-loving, lovemaking, wisdom-spreading Guru Pitka.

It might be fun, but are audiences really in a Guru Pitka mood, when gas is over four bucks a gallon, job security is low and the nation is bogged down in a foreign war? Is it any wonder people are lining up to buy the video game Grand Theft Auto IV?

This is bad luck for Myers, whose career could stand the boost. It's a weird thing to say about a guy who voices Shrek and whose last two "Austin Powers" comedies grossed more than $200 million each. But "Austin Powers in Goldmember," the third in that series, came out in 2002, which feels like a very long time ago. That's because it was -- seven Will Ferrell movies ago, three Steve Carells, five Sandlers, three Chris Rocks and one very important one -- "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat took the foreigner-as-funny-outsider comedy to a level heretofore unknown, adding the degree-of-difficulty factor: Instead of Rob Schneider, or Rob Lowe, he used actual people as foils, experimenting with the results. His was a commitment to character, and moment, reminiscent of "The Party," the Blake Edwards comedy in which Peter Sellers played a bumbling movie extra of Indian extraction who wreaks sly havoc at a studio mogul's Hollywood dinner party.

"Borat" was a mainstream hit (and was it, on some level, a wakeup call for Sandler and Myers that a new Zen master had arrived?). Myers' last star turn was 2003's "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat," where he summoned his best facial moves for a kids movie and was still upstaged by comedy genius Alec Baldwin.

Sandler, meanwhile, has had a career of so many ups and downs that it's almost impossible to keep track. You have to go back to "Little Nicky," in 2000, to find the last Sandler comedy that didn't gross at least $100 million. But can you name the five movies since that did?

Thus are Sandler and Myers facing a dilemma that has afflicted no less a figure than Eddie Murphy: What is the shelf life these days of a movie-star comedian?


It's A question that seems of particular relevance to Myers, who exists outside any comedy posse I know of. The posse is a vital part of the filmmaking process for comedy stars like Rock, Ferrell and Carell, who all share associations and/or friendships on the industry axis of managers, producers, comics and writer-buddies.

The writing credits on "Zohan" are one such trio -- Sandler, the star; Judd Apatow, the star producer; and Robert Smigel, the writer friend (he's the voice of "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog," from "Late Night With Conan O'Brien").

Further, the movie was directed by Dennis Dugan, who goes back to the "Happy Gilmore" days. "The Love Guru," which was written by Myers and Graham Gordy, was directed by first-timer Marco Schnabel (a second-unit director on "Goldmember").

If "The Love Guru" smells like the "Austin Powers" series -- sketch comedy strung together like sausages -- it's because Myers loves playing the sausage master. Austin Powers, you'll remember, was cryogenically frozen in London's swinging '60s; the guru Pitka is likewise time-warped, raised on an ashram in India.

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