Funny In The Sun

Hollwood lightens up this summer with laughs for every taste

Summer Movie Preview

May 23, 2008|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Like many a movie lover and even some Hollywood insiders, Ron Shelton, a writer-director of classic sports comedies, found himself going through comedy withdrawal last fall and winter, when the studios left farce off their schedules and stuffed them instead with protest films and message movies.

"Shouldn't we be desperate for laughs when it's dark and gloomy?" Shelton asks, over the phone from sunny Ojai, Calif. "Shouldn't we want comedy in the winter? And who ever said that serious movies can't have a sense of humor?"

But the comedy drought ends this summer. June, July and August will offer a cavalcade of reigning comic luminaries in promising star vehicles. They include Steve Carell as a doofus secret agent in Get Smart; Eddie Murphy as a tiny spaceship captain in Meet Dave; Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers; Adam Sandler as an Israeli commando turned hairstylist in You Don't Mess With the Zohan; and Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, the potentially gut-busting tale of actors in a Southeast Asian war movie who get caught up in real combat.

In recent summers, comic-book revivals such as Batman Begins and Superman Returns turned out dour or melancholy. But this month, Jon Favreau and Steven Spielberg have injected some madcap slapstick into their action-hero blockbusters, Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Don't look for deep reasons for this turnaround, Shelton cautions. "This business is reactive. It's all about what happened a year or two or three before. I used to be told I could never make another R-rated comedy, even though all my R-rated comedies were successful. Then Wedding Crashers comes along in the summer of 2005, and all you can make is R-rated summer comedies.

"Comedies, relatively speaking, are

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not terribly expensive. They're not driven by special effects or computer graphics, so they're considered great counterprogramming against the films that are."

Will the string of spoofs, burlesques and crazy comedies for weeks to come mark a happy ending for Hollywood's yearlong famine of top-drawer farce? That depends not on the marquee names pulling audiences into the theater but on the craftsmen who are supposed to spark them into life.

The pool of comic talent available to big-screen producers is as broad and deep as it was in the 1980s, when Bill Murray, Steve Martin and John Candy came into their own on film.

A positive new force has emerged in writer-director-producer Judd Apatow, who catalyzed a series of smart crowd-pleasers mixing acute perceptions with below-the-belt jolts.

"I respect Judd Apatow," Shelton says. "A movie like Knocked Up fulfills my definition of a comedy as a cathartic version of a dark story. It could have been the forbidding tale of an unwanted pregnancy from an ill-considered one-night stand. Instead, it was explosively funny." (Apatow also co-wrote the script for Sandler's Zohan.)

American movies of all types have thrived on Apatow-like blends of high and low language, content and imagery.

Steve Vineberg, the Worcester, Mass.-based author of High Comedy in American Movies, defines high comedies as "comedies about class, where the characters are an aristocracy and the comedy is based on the characteristics of that class: They're usually high-style and verbal."

Vineberg says star vehicles like Sandler's normally can't be high comedies "because they're so unlike what Hollywood thinks will make money" and they require ensembles rather than individual stars.

American high comedies depict aristocracies that center on talent, pulchritude and merit, not just noble birth. Vineberg says the one pure high comedy this season will probably be the movie version of Sex and the City: "The series presented an aristocracy of beautiful 30-something women in New York who share a similar lifestyle and wit. What makes Sex and the City so unusual is the way it adds burlesque and sex stuff to the conventions of high comedy."

American movie comedy thrives on these games of mix and match. Partly because stars like Ferrell and Carell tend to come from improv theaters, comedy clubs and revues, they range through romantic and high comedy, hard-boiled banter about the corruption and stupidity of the world, and all-out baggy-pants farce - often within the same film.

"The challenge is building a concept around these talented performers," Vineberg says. "Too often, there are five funny jokes and you spend the rest of the time looking at your watch. I enjoyed The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but I could have done without a good half-hour of it. And these things are even longer on DVD."

One hopes Get Smart, Step Brothers, Meet Dave and Tropic Thunder are funny, short and sweet. Or - even better - funny, short and tangy.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

SUMMER MOVIE PREVIEW

Comedy

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