Prepare for Good, Sick Fun

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

Two years ago, it was hair gel. Last year, it was apple pie. This summer, it's French toast.

It seems that every summer, some scene in comedy is so gross or so stupid that it invariably becomes Topic A at the office water cooler. Soon, word of mouth has propelled the movie into becoming an unlikely blockbuster.

Remember Cameron Diaz's stiffened blond locks in the Farrelly brothers' 1998 comedy "There's Something About Mary"? Or Jason Biggs applying his love-making techniques to a freshly baked pie in last summer's teen comedy "American Pie"?

This summer, don't be surprised if the buzz is about the diner scene in "Road Trip," the Todd Phillips comedy about a group of college students driving to Texas to retrieve a videotape before a girlfriend can pop it in the VCR and discover her boyfriend has cheated on her. Let's just say breakfast at Denny's will never be the same after audiences see what the waiter does to the nerd guy's French toast order.

Ah, the summer movie season is once again upon us, a time when Hollywood dispenses with Oscar pretensions and gives moviegoers what they really want--guys hurling, cars careening, babes jiggling, blood oozing, animated creatures romping, all at decibel levels so deafening that ears can ring for days.

Purists, of course, argue that summer has become a "dead zone," where serious films get little marquee space next to films laced with rampant buffoonery, gratuitous violence and visual razzle-dazzle. Shouldn't Hollywood release summer films with compelling stories, intriguing plots and riveting dialogue?

Yeah, right.

Tell that to a 14-year-old and his video game-crazed buds who are out of school prowling the mall, or all those adults who never got around to seeing "Boys Don't Cry" or "The Insider." You can bet they're going to flock to the local megaplex the first chance they get to see "Dinosaur," "X-Men" or "M:I-2."

Sure, there's always Miramax to soothe those irritated eardrums. In fact, Miramax has not one, but two films based on the works of William Shakespeare. Well, sort of. "Hamlet," starring Ethan Hawke, is set in modern-day New York City, while "Love's Labour's Lost," directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, is set in the 1930s and features songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. But it's a start.

Meanwhile, DreamWorks plans to toss another lifeline to the purists: Woody Allen.

Allen's back in a light romantic comedy called "Small Time Crooks," which opens later this month. They say it's Woody as we used to know him, before all that messy stuff. In "Small Time Crooks," Allen plays an ex-con dishwasher and Tracey Ullman his manicurist wife. They dream of becoming rich the old-fashioned way--by robbing a bank in New York City.

But no one is expecting a Woody Allen film to gross anywhere near $100 million, the box-office benchmark determining blockbuster status. To do that, a filmmaker needs a gimmick. It might be stylized action, stupendous digital effects, a big movie star in a familiar genre or simply some French toast stuffed down a waiter's pants.

Don't knock gimmicks. If moviegoers shelled out more than $100 million to watch Ben Stiller get his appendage caught in his zipper in "There's Something About Mary," chances are pretty good that Martin Lawrence made up like a fat woman in "Big Momma's House" can be a huge hit too.

Unlike last summer, when the media focused on one movie, George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" (OK, maybe two--"Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" got its share of ink and promotions), this summer is wide open.

One thing is sure: Get ready for movies with high-testosterone levels, ranging from the retro (a remake of "Shaft") to the historical (Mel Gibson's "The Patriot") to the weirdly futuristic ("Battlefield Earth," starring John Travolta in a film based on the novel by Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard) to the comic-book world ("X-Men" and even the animated "Titan A.E.") to the Hong Kong-inspired (John Woo's "M:I-2"; "Shanghai Noon," starring Jackie Chan).

Male megastars are also back in full force. Tom, Mel, Harrison, Jim, Eddie, Clint, Nicolas and Will all star in major movies this summer. But what you won't see many of are "chick flicks." Before summer arrived, Julia Roberts rolled out her latest blockbuster, "Erin Brockovich," and it won't be until year's end that Drew, Cameron and Lucy deliver "Charlie's Angels."

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The summer is crucial to various studios for various reasons:

* Sony Pictures Entertainment, which struggled much of last year until "Stuart Little" revived its fortunes, needs to show it can regularly turn out hits. It is now betting heavily that audiences are ready for a sprawling Revolutionary War film, "The Patriot," as well as a new twist on the old invisible man genre with the digital-effects-driven "Hollow Man."

* Warner Bros., which has a new studio chief (Alan Horn) for the first time in what seems like ages, is another company that could use a blockbuster or two. It just might have them with Wolfgang Petersen's "The Perfect Storm" and Clint Eastwood's "Space Cowboys." The studio also has high hopes for Jamie Foxx in "Bait" and Keanu Reeves in "The Replacements."

* Universal Pictures, which started the year off with a bang with "Erin Brockovich" and "U-571," hopes to keep the streak going when Eddie Murphy arrives in the comedy sequel "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." But things could get risky if only aging baby boomers want to see "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle."

* At 20th Century Fox, which concentrated much of its marketing firepower last summer on "Star Wars," executives couldn't be happier that this year they have the comedy equivalent of a sure thing: Jim Carrey starring in a Farrelly brothers comedy, "Me, Myself & Irene." They also believe they have a potential summer sleeper in the Brendan Fraser-Elizabeth Hurley comedy remake of "Bedazzled." But the high-velocity animated space film "Titan A.E." is facing tough competition from a slew of animated films.

* Disney, meanwhile, has to be nervous since it invested more than $150 million in just one movie--"Dinosaur." Still, if anyone can market the heck out of a computer-animated prehistoric animal movie, it's Walt's heirs.

* DreamWorks, which three years ago didn't even release a summer movie, now has a bundle of them, including "Road Trip," "Chicken Run," "What Lies Beneath" (a Harrison Ford-Michelle Pfeiffer ghost thriller directed by Robert Zemeckis), and Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron in Robert Redford's golf tale, "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

"What you don't see this summer is the big hype around one movie like you did, say, with 'Godzilla,' " said Tom Sherak, who heads distribution at Fox. "There is no 800-pound gorilla. You're going to see big business spread out to all the studios."

For example, he noted, Columbia Pictures' "The Patriot" is scheduled to open over the Fourth of July holiday weekend against Warner Bros.' big-budget disaster-at-sea thriller "The Perfect Storm." While some argue that the two studios are crazy to release them on the same weekend, Sherak disagrees.

"There's plenty of room for both films," Sherak said. "One film will do $28 million [that weekend] and the other one $23 million. That's still a big weekend."

So with apologies to "The Perfect Storm," here are some of the other big waves that will rock the movie business this summer.

The Matrix Factor. Like society at large, movies today are getting more frenetic than ever. Images come and go in microbursts. Editing seems taught by the chef at Benihana.

If the trailers for some of this summer's bigger films are any indication, strap yourself in and cover your popcorn, because it's going to be a Nasdaq ride.

* There's Tom Cruise racing a motorcycle at what looks like speeds of 400 mph in the $100-million sequel "M:I-2." With Woo ("Face/Off") at the helm, the Hong Kong-style action will be wild and fierce, but it has a long way to go to eclipse the $465-million worldwide box office of the 1996 original.

* There's Nicolas Cage, pedal to the floor, screeching off in a stolen car beside pouty-lipped Angelina Jolie in the $90-million action flick "Gone in Sixty Seconds."

* There's grizzled George Clooney and his grizzled crew of Atlantic fishermen (Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly) trying to ride out a monster hurricane in the $120-million film "The Perfect Storm." And, you thought "Fail Safe" painted a dark scenario.

* Even the Revolutionary War, where men wore wigs and fought with muskets and swords, looks pretty high-octane in the $100-million "The Patriot." How Gibson ever manages to get off so many quick shots with those flintlocks is anybody's guess.

The action is also nonstop in animated movies. The hard-jawed hunk in the $75-million space adventure "Titan A.E." could give Rambo some lessons.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Gone in Sixty Seconds"), whose name has become almost synonymous with big action fare ("Armageddon," "The Rock"), believes the rapid-fire editing techniques we are seeing in today's films are reflective of younger directors and editors who are emerging.

"All of that generation is being bombarded with information," Bruckheimer said. "I think there is so much for a kid to absorb today. When I was growing up, we had three TV channels. Now, kids have 100 TV channels to choose from and video games they can play constantly, and computers and the Internet. Their minds are much more active than ours."

The Digital Factor. It's a fact that filmmakers today have more toys at their disposal than ever before. David Lean may have had the sprawling desert as the backdrop in "Lawrence of Arabia," but today's filmmakers can create a sprawling desert backdrop at their office pod.

Hollywood is on the cusp of a wondrous new technological age, one in which digital images are revolutionizing the art form.

Tom Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, recalls how remarkable everyone thought the ballroom scene was in "Beauty and the Beast." But nine years later, he said, that scene looks "kind of primitive."

When "Dinosaur" was first proposed to Disney back in the mid-1980s, the technological advances needed to make such a film were nonexistent or in their infancy. So, the project was abandoned. Then John Lasseter ("Toy Story") and other computer animators showed what the new era would be like.

"Keep in mind, we have been using computer animation going back to 'The Great Mouse Detective' in 1986," Schumacher said.

With today's computer graphics, he noted, the prehistoric creatures in "Dinosaur" are given facial expressions and appear as if they can speak.

In Columbia Pictures' upcoming summer thriller "Hollow Man," technical advances permitted director Paul Verhoeven and Sony Pictures Imageworks to create special effects shots that weren't available even for Verhoeven's 1997 sci-fi film, "Starship Troopers," where space soldiers battled an army of giant insects.

In "Hollow Man," Kevin Bacon stars as a brilliant and arrogant scientist who unlocks the secret of invisibility only to become intoxicated with his newfound power that becomes more and more sinister. For the film, Bacon's real-life features were scanned into a computer so that even when his character turns invisible, those same features can materialize in strange forms that outline him.

"You have to realize, if Sebastian [Bacon's character] walks through the rain, he will be outlined by the rain because the rain [consists of] molecules and the molecules would hit his hair and then flow down," Verhoeven said. "You would see him as a human waterfall. If he went through the fog, you would see him as kind of a shadowy density. Where Sebastian is there cannot be fog, so there would be a hole in the fog."

In one of the film's more dramatic scenes, Bacon is shown on an operating table slowly losing his skin, then his muscles, then his tendons and finally his skeleton, before vanishing altogether.

"This is more complex than a dinosaur," Verhoeven said. "That's because the dinosaur is just the skin that you see moving. The knees and the muscles, you really don't see, but here you see exactly that.

In "The Patriot," for example, director Roland Emmerich and his crew of effects wizards photographed hundreds of extras playing British and American troops on a large battlefield. Yet, when the film reaches theaters, it will look like thousands of soldiers are squaring off. That's because computers allowed the filmmakers to inflate the size of the troops with digitalized images of soldiers, each one different in size, build and even facial characteristics.

The Porky's Factor. After their wild success with "There's Something About Mary," how do Peter and Bobby Farrelly top themselves? Well, for starters, you hire Jim Carrey and place him in a comedy concoction like "Me, Myself & Irene."

Rubber-faced Carrey plays a Rhode Island cop with a split personality. See, there's Charlie, a devoted and loving father to three grown sons (who happen to be black and fathered by a midget--but that's another story), and then there's Hank, his hyper-aggressive alter-ego who surfaces when Charlie forgets to take his medication.

Peter Farrelly knows that some people might take offense at the gags that spill from Carrey's split personality, but the filmmaker believes the American public now embraces the racier humor that was in vogue back in the 1970s in films like "Blazing Saddles," "National Lampoon's Animal House" and "The Kentucky Fried Movie."

"People are under the impression that when we write a movie, the first thing we do is ask ourselves, 'What outrageous gags can we come up with?' but we don't," Farrelly said. "The first thing we do is develop a character so likable that we can hang our gags on him and get away with it."

Yes, he added, the depiction of Cameron Diaz's mentally challenged brother in "There's Something About Mary" was "kind of embarrassing," but because the guy stood up to a bully in the film, "the audience is 100% on our side."

In "Me, Myself & Irene," Carrey is such a likable guy and so morally right--or, at least, half of him is--that Farrelly believes audiences will readily accept that humor, too.

"I think the audience was starved for this type of stuff," he said. "They get sick of soft comedy. . . . 'American Pie' to me was 'American Graffiti' 25 years later. The world changes and you have to go a little further. What they were doing in that movie ["American Pie"] was not any more than what they did in 'Animal House.' "

If Farrelly's right, then the scene in "Road Trip" in which MTV comedian Tom Green puts a live, wiggling mouse in his mouth should drive up the box office 30%.

Meanwhile, in what could be a sleeper hit, director Amy Heckerling ("Clueless," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High") returns with another teen comedy, "Loser." It stars that pie lover Jason Biggs as a nerdy, good-natured college student adrift in New York on a scholarship and co-stars Mena Suvari, who was last seen dropping rose petals on Kevin Spacey's face in "American Beauty."

Like Chris Rock? He's starring as a stand-up comedian who gets taken to heaven too soon and comes back as a rich white guy in "I Was Made to Love Her." The film is directed by Chris and Paul Weitz, those same brothers who brought us "American Pie."

In a dark comedy directed by Nora Ephron tentatively titled "Numbers," John Travolta stars as a TV weather caster who tries to rig the station's lottery game with the help of the lotto ball girl (Lisa Kudrow).

Other comedies this summer include Jackie Chan in "Shanghai Noon," Bruce Willis in "Disney's The Kid," Alan Rickman in "Blow Dry," Billy Bob Thornton in "Daddy and Them," Jerry Bruckheimer's "Coyote Ugly," and a spoof of the "Scream" genre called "Scary Movie" starring Carmen Electra.

The DreamWorks Factor. Three years ago, DreamWorks was a fledgling studio. Founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, it didn't release one film during that summer. This year, however, DreamWorks has already won the Academy Award for best picture ("American Beauty") and will have six summer releases: "Gladiator," "Road Trip," "Small Time Crooks," "Chicken Run," "What Lies Beneath" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

One film, "Chicken Run," is created by England-based Aardman Animation, the Academy Award-winning team behind "Wallace and Gromit" shorts. It's about chickens trapped behind barbed wire who make a run for it before they can be fried, fileted or fricasseed. The trailer has received good buzz.

The studio could also hit the jackpot with the teen comedy "Road Trip," Robert Zemeckis' "What Lies Beneath" and Robert Redford's "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

The Animation Factor. Here's where the battle could get really ugly.

There are seven animated films coming out this summer, some appealing more to adults, while others mainly to children.

Disney, long the champion in animation, is rolling out "Dinosaur" on May 19, and no studio wants to stay in the path of (a) fearsome dinosaurs with huge appetites and (b) a Disney summer animated movie. But later in the summer, other studios are stepping up with their own animated fare--some aimed specifically at children under 10, others more to teens and adults.

Two films that should appeal to young children are Warner Bros.' sequel "Pokemon The Movie 2000," which will introduce six new Pokemon characters, and Destination Films' "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," which combines live action, stop-action animation and digital animation.

Appealing to teens and adults as well as children are DreamWorks' "Chicken Run," Universal's "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," Disney's "Fantasia 2000" and Fox's supercharged sci-fi film "Titan A.E."

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