Film Fund-amentals: American Pie-Eyed

A reporter recently got me to play the voice of doom for the summer releases. The role comes naturally, since I favor black in my personal attire, so I spent a few minutes expounding upon the likely demise of the big-budget movies that are now beginning to turn theaters into an elephant graveyard.

Actually, they’re all pretty easy calls. But I got thrown by the last question: What do I expect to be the surprise hit of the summer?

Personally, it feels to me like asking the undertaker if he has any repeat customers. Besides, if you could guess, then it ain’t a surprise. The best answer I could think of was something about the usual teenage sex comedy. Thanks to the success of The Hangover, I am now officially a prophet.

OK, there are no teenagers in this film — the characters are more like aging, over-the-hill teenagers. But my point remains. In a stunning reminder that H. L. Mencken knew what he was talking about when he said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” The Hangover has converted a $35 million dollar budget into a $105 million dollar binge at the box office — proof again that mixing booze with hormones will result in far greater success on the screen than it ever does at a bar.

There really shouldn’t be any surprise to the success of The Hangover. Despite claims to the contrary, sexual crudeness is a longstanding American cultural tradition. There was once a study made of the calls done in late nineteenth century square dancing, where they discovered that many of the calls were outrageously and explicitly sexual in nature. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that square-dancers became concerned about cleaning up their act.

Granted, not every successful modern comedy requires the crudeness of Hustler magazine. Paul Blart: Mall Cop converted its meager $25 million dollar budget into a global return of $178,836,178 — which means that it easily beat out the strangely similar (and infinitely edgier) Observe and Report, which was barely able to limp its way into an early release at the DVD bargain bin. And Paul Blart was able to do this with a family-friendly veneer so clean it made a Baptist convention look almost smutty by comparison (though the Baptists can get pretty smutty when they are riled – which is often).

But most of the successful movies in this vein are all about sex (Porky, American Pie, There’s Something About Mary), and mostly in the crudest, nastiest, most demeaning forms (and if possible, maybe with some flatulence involved). Likewise, these movies make their money in the Bible belt heartland of the country. I am not interested in taking this contradiction to its overt political conclusion, but I’m reminded of what a literary critic once said about certain bestselling novels — they’re all designed as pornography for the wives of Methodist ministers.

Of course, now it’s pornography for the kids of Methodist ministers. That means it has to be crude enough for a farmer, salacious enough to please a traveling salesman, and just enough happy-go-lucky but hapless horniness to appeal to the kind of guy who actually pays attention to the Smilin’ Bob ads on late night TV. And hapless is a key ingredient. The main character has to be a sexually hapless, nerdy kind of guy, which allows the largely hapless and nerdy audience a chance to feel both sympathetic and, just slightly, superior to the hero. Remember, half of the audience secretly suspects that Smilin’ Bob might really work despite what the FDA says.

Strangely enough, these films are a showcase for the dubious concept of post-feminist feminism (or whatever the heck they now call it) — part of the audience to these movies is made up of young women. They are not crude, they are liberated. That’s why they can now exploit their sexuality in a manner resembling an old Frank Tashlin flick as part of their liberation. Personally, I’m not sure what the difference is, but you’ve got to factor that in. This means that the demographics are an almost ideal mix of male/female 20-somethings.

Much like a modern horror film, the budget for these comedies has to ideally stay within the $15 to $20 million dollar range (The Hangover was pressing its luck just a bit on this one). Fortunately, you don’t need stars — Tom Green, Andy Dick and Joe Flaherty have been the closest thing to stars normally seen in these movies (and Flaherty is the only one who can act). And at least one of these guys is better known for his mug shots than his movies.

So yes, we have now seen the surprise hit of the summer. It’s all pretty predictable. It doesn’t exactly fit the model that Hollywood thinks it’s supposed to be doing at this moment. That, too, is pretty predictable.

Now the summer may return to its regularly-scheduled imploding of big-ticket items.

— Dennis Toth