A summer for grown-ups Unlike the adolescent fare of summers past, this season's films are good enough to bring adults back to the multiplex.

July 12, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,sun film critic

What's wrong with me? Here it is, mid-July, and I'm walking with a spring in my step, humming a happy tune. Sure, there's been a "Godzilla" here and an "Armageddon" there, but even the grumpiest critic has to admit they've been anomalies in what has been a shockingly good summer for good movies.

Of course, consider the context: Last year at this time I was ready to slit my wrists.

I had slogged through "The Lost World." I had seethed through "Con Air." I had snoozed through "Speed 2." I had grumbled through "Batman & Robin." I was looking back ever more wistfully at "The Fifth Element." When "Men in Black" finally opened in early July, it wasn't so much a relief as reparations. And I haven't even mentioned "Addicted to Love,"

"Father's Day," "Gone Fishin' " and "Trial and Error."

Compare that ignominious slate with this summer's titles: "Bulworth," "The Truman Show," "A Perfect Murder" - smart, grown-up movies all. For their genres, "A Perfect Murder," "Deep Impact," "The X-Files" and "Out of Sight" are all perfectly respectable, and "Mulan" and "Madeline" have provided welcome respite from "Dr. Dolittle" as far as family films are concerned.

Unlike summers past, which have traditionally been dominated by teen-agers and their taste for big bangs and small ideas, 1998 may be remembered for the summer when it was safe for grown-ups to brave the multiplex.

And the increase in quality has been reflected in quantity.

Although the big-ticket "Godzilla" and "Armageddon" were relative disappointments for their studios, according to Leonard Klady, who analyzed the midyear box office in the June 29 issue of Weekly Variety, summer box office is up 11 percent from 1997. And, with films like Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," Brian De Palma's "Snake Eyes" and the romantic comedy "There's Something About Mary," starring Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz - now being buzzed about as the season's sleeper hit - still to come, this summer looks to be even bigger yet. What with a larger-than-usual number of films being released in July and August, Klady predicted, "It's almost certain to translate into record attendance."

In a conversation last summer, Klady said that the mediocre performance of big-budget bombs like "Speed 2" and "Batman & Robin" would force the industry to "change their operating procedures and philosophies." So, have they? Not really, says Klady, who attributes this summer's better box office to increased ticket prices rather than more posteriors in seats. "Maybe it's marginally better, but it's not like years where suddenly you see a huge increase in the audience," he said. "The last time that happened was in 1993, and it was basically fueled by 'Jurassic Park.' "

According to Paul Dergara-bedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., a box-office tracking firm, "It's probably a little bit of both. To really attribute all this growth to ticket-price increase would be tough to do. There are so many movies out there, and there's a depth to the box office." The total gross of the top 30 films released so far this summer is up 15 percent from last summer's top 30 during the same time period, Dergarabedian added. This year's top 30 films had grossed $1,031,987,360 through last weekend.

Dergarabedian points to movies that opened surprisingly strongly and have hung in - like "Dr. Dolittle" - as well as films that have performed well not just on weekends but also over the course of the week - like "Mulan" - as examples of the strength of this summer's top movies. "I guess the word for this summer would be consistency," he said.

If there's a downside to better movies from mainstream Hollywood, it should be for the independent movie companies, which count on dumbed-down summer movies to counter-program their art films against.

The theory is that while Junior is watching yet one more pumped-up superhero (or heroine) running away from yet one more fireball, Mom and Dad can sneak into something a bit less incendiary. "Ulee's Gold" and "The Full Monty" were last year's counter-programming hits; 1996 was an even better year for art with "Lone Star," "Trainspotting" and "Emma."

There hasn't been a breakout art hit yet this summer, although "The Opposite of Sex," a dark comedy starring Christina Ricci and featuring Lisa Kudrow and Lyle Lovett, has done well since it opened in May. "Hav Plenty" "The Last Days of Disco" and "Smoke Signals," all independent films, have received strong reviews and are enjoying supportive audiences as they roll out in pTC theaters throughout the country.

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