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Critic's Notebook: In movies, there's a right way to raunch

While the summer lineup is full of 'Hangover' hopefuls, there are probably more 'Brunos' in the bunch.

May 01, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Steve Carell's character gets his chest waxed in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Looking on are Paul Rudd, left, Seth Rogen and Miki Mia.
Steve Carell's character gets his chest waxed in "The 40-Year-Old… (Suzanne Hanover / Universal…)

I love summer at the cinema, the prime season for serving up all the racy, bawdy, lewd and salty — served roasted or raw — by the purveyors of R-rated comedies and all those heavy-breathing PG-13 wannabes. But here's my beef: "Funny," as defined by Hollywood these days, is little more than a barrage of F-bombs and other indecent over-exposures that studios believe will ring up millions more at the box office.

But easy, breezy, sleazy profit has come at a price — a creative crisis. To wit: What has happened to quality raunch?

Where are those blush-worthy bon mots that add spice when meted out in proper measure? When did blue and black go into some unfathomable off-color realm? The one that apparently led a group of otherwise sane individuals to think it would be really funny to watch a grown man who is neither homeless nor deranged and only slightly high, drop trou on a sand trap, squat and defecate. It happened in this year's "Hall Pass," starring Owen Wilson.

The ads underscore that this brilliance was from the Farrelly brothers, Bobby and Peter, who brought us the rich riff of 1998's "There's Something About Mary." How could they get the raunch so right in "Mary" and end up in the sand trap of "Hall Pass"? When the Farrellys actually believed in the audience — i.e. that most of us come with active imaginations — it brought down the house when the blue-eyed innocence of Cameron Diaz's Mary collided with dorky-sweet Ted's (Ben Stiller) misplaced passion. And, I might add, changed forever the way anyone who saw the film will ever think about "hair product" again.

Bottom line (mine, not the studios) — let's not get rid of raunch, but let's do get it right. After the hilariously satisfying, un-PC surprise of "The Hangover," I am really not in the mood to be let down by "Part II." What director Todd Phillips understands (at least some of the time — he did in 2003's "Old School"; did not in 2010's "Due Date") — and what anyone in the R-rated humor game should never forget: There is a high art to making lowbrow excellent.

The coming months will tell us a lot about how low the lowbrow may go, because the lineup is packed. In addition to the "Hangover" follow, there's "Horrible Bosses," "Bad Teachers," "Bridesmaids," "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and its sequel "Friends with Benefits" (just kidding about the sequel bit).

When done right, raunch is the quintessential guilty pleasure. Well done, as opposed to merely raw, it allows the voyeuristic pleasure of being naughty that most of us stopped indulging in years ago.

Remember Vince Vaughn's morning-after rant while loading up at the breakfast buffet in "The Wedding Crashers"? Or the sexy email short skirt flirts in "Bridget Jones's Diary"? Meg Ryan's fierce fake orgasm in "When Harry Met Sally"? Steve Carell faking sexcapades in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"? How about George Clooney and Vera Farmiga's you-show-me-yours, frequent flier face-off in "Up in the Air"? In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen literally crossed the raunch Rubicon to searingly smart effect in "Borat"; there was the wrestling match, of course, but that was only the beginning — every line of religious, racial and sexual decorum was eventually violated, only to stumble badly in the crudeness of "Bruno."

When it works, the off-color is seamlessly integrated to make a spicy marriage between the character and the context. Sometimes it's maximum effect for minimal offense, as it was in "The King's Speech." Colin Firth's stuttering prince is at an impasse with Geoffrey Rush's speech therapist until he allows that he doesn't stutter when he curses. The impassioned flurry of F-bombs that follows is wonderfully shocking but comically human in a way that made it completely true to the spirit of the man.

That is the exception. More often the context and the character clash, creating a syndrome that is currently infecting the comic food chain to lethal effect, as in "No Strings Attached." The film opens at summer camp with two awkward teens having a genuine moment. Then comes the punch line: nerd-boy (whose grown-up self is played by Ashton Kutcher) makes a proposition to smart girl (who becomes Natalie Portman's med student) that is creepily crude and, worse, completely unbelievable coming out of the mouths of the babes the filmmakers created.

Could the problem be merely that the use of F-bombs and the like has gotten so pervasive? No. Case in point is 1988's "Midnight Run," with Robert De Niro's bounty hunter bringing in Charles Grodin's mob accountant. Even by today's standards, De Niro's use of the word is astronomical. And yet, his embittered former cop who held onto his integrity but lost everything else could not exist without them. It is language as weapon and as protection for an emotional soft center. The movie remains one of the great satires on male conflict and bonding. Take out the naughty and you have nice, something closer to "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." Somehow I prefer the edge.

Still, the most important and the most elusive piece of the equation is creativity. Consider the chicken in "The Hangover." A clucking fowl picking through the debris of a Vegas luxury suite spoke volumes. We knew without a word that terribly embarrassing and horrifically inappropriate "things" had happened. Though the many indiscretions of the night would eventually be laid bare for our amusement, that moment was pure comic genius. Raunch needs a lot more moments like that.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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