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.
Of course, in comedy, timing is everything. "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" came out in 1997, toward the end of an era in which we'd grown a little weary of having the weight of the world on Bruce Willis' shoulders. (Die hard? Die already.) Whether or not Myers sensed it, Austin was just the antidote we needed -- a James Bond hero with truly disgusting chest hair and teeth who nevertheless thought he was as sexy and dangerous as a young Sean Connery.
It was all built on a foundation of Myers' prodigious talents as a quick-change artist when it comes to characters (those Dr. Evil scenes are, in a word, priceless).
But the trailer for "The Love Guru" fails to convey a funny villain, just a midget who gets bonked on the head with a slap shot. Meanwhile, riffing on New Age mystics, in 2008, feels kind of hoary. Aren't the words of the Dalai Lama on a Starbucks cup? And speaking of marketing, will we be seeing the guru Pitka during the NBA finals the way Sandler's Zohan has been all over ABC's coverage of the playoffs? Myers' passion is for hockey, and he's already partnered "The Love Guru" with the NHL, whose cable network is Versus, which used to be called the Outdoor Life Network. You see the marketing disconnect.
Still, I have utter faith in Myers' ability to make me laugh, just as I feel in no particular hurry to catch "The Love Guru." (Oh please, cable gods, let me be in a Four Seasons bed with jet lag at some unknown date in the future when "The Love Guru" appears on TNT.) Make no mistake, the Pitka outfit is funny -- Myers in paisley robes, with a handlebar mustache and Doug Henning hair, eyebrows arching in deadpan humor (no comedian since Groucho Marx has said more with his eyebrows than Myers).
How long can he stay in caricature? His "Austin Powers" movies featured a flurry of inspired topical jokes, a la the "Airplane" movies of the 1980s. But that kind of humor tends to move now at the warp speed of the Internet, or at least "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
This is why "The Love Guru" looks like Myers is refusing to recognize that he might need to reboot or branch out. Unlike Sandler, he is not personal in his work, or has decided not to be; we haven't really seen on screen the mix of influences that made him want to be a comedian in the first place. Put another way, what's in his heart?
The most vulnerable and complex performance he's ever given -- and it's worth looking up -- was as the gay, drug-addled Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell in the 1998 movie "54." The second most compelling performance happened accidentally, when Myers was paired with hip-hop star Kanye West during the celebrity telethon for victims of Hurricane Katrina. As West decried the government's bungled response to the misery of New Orleans' black underclass, Myers found himself in the comedian's most vulnerable state -- trapped in a situation he could not joke his way out of. His eyebrows were rendered powerless.
Had Sandler been standing next to West, his face would have cued us, I'll bet, to how uncomfortable he was. Sandler can't help but be himself; it's one of his more endearing qualities.
On "Saturday Night Live," Myers was the one spinning plates (his characters spanning the zany, from "Middle-Aged Man" to "Coffee Talk's" Linda Richman to Dieter of "Sprockets"). Sandler, on the other hand, was the one insisting that whatever he was doing ought not to be mistaken as craft. He would smirk through his characters (Opera Man, Cajun Man, Canteen Boy) like Harvey Korman not keeping a straight face during a "Carol Burnett Show" sketch.
TRANSITION TO PATHOS
This spirit continued into his early comedies ("Billy Madison," "The Waterboy"), but seemed to stop abruptly when Paul Thomas Anderson wrote him into the starring role of "Punch-Drunk Love." Suddenly, he was Chaplin-esque -- clad in a shimmering blue suit in a Valley warehouse, broken and alone and obsessed with pudding coupons.
Amazingly, we believed it -- and so, too, did he. Sandler went on to do the very sober "Reign Over Me," the underrated 2007 movie in which he was a Sept. 11 widower in a fugue of grief, and, the year before, the highly sentimental "Click," which begins as a comedy (guy discovers magic remote control, flips past interpersonal connection) only to become "It's a Wonderful Life" (guy tearfully realizes family comes first).
Sure, he bombed in James L. Brooks' dreadful dramedy "Spanglish," but Sandler, in this way, is somehow Teflon -- and in retrospect, the point seems to be that the Oscar-winning Brooks would dare to cast him as a decent Brentwood dad in the first place.
For comedians, the transition into pathos -- and it's one Sandler is continuing to make -- is hardly easy. And if you're a star comedian, the stakes are that much higher, making the result that much more chastening. What of Garry Shandling after the failure of "What Planet Are You From?" What of Rock after "I Think I Love My Wife"? We know what happened to Jimmy Fallon after "Taxi" and "Fever Pitch" -- he's going to take over as host of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" when O'Brien heads to "The Tonight Show's" Jay Leno's seat.
Assuming "The Love Guru" makes bank (or even if it tanks), Myers can always do another Mike Myers movie, and another one after that. So why does it feel as if he's holding onto the reins of his image for dear life? There's something kind of classy these days about a guy who makes a comedy only once every five years, if it also means he risks extinction.
After all, the others keep coming and coming. Will Ferrell has yet another comedy out this summer, "Step Brothers," hard on the heels of the early '08 disappointment "Semi-Pro," which came after last year's "Blades of Glory." Carell is back on the big screen -- on the same day "Love Guru" opens -- with "Get Smart," just weeks after NBC's season finale of "The Office."
You get the point: It's hard out there for a "Guru."