Out of morbid curiosity, I took in a movie matinee this week to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Last Action Hero."
My curiosity was morbid because the new movie is said to be teetering on the edge of being a huge box office bust.
Some Hollywood experts say it could be one of the biggest financial flops in movie history. It cost $80 million to make but audiences aren't exactly flocking to see it. The studio is said to be terrified and that makes it one of the biggest show business stories of the year.
These gloomy forecasts surprised me, since Arnold (his first name is easier to spell) has made nothing but hits since his youthful days as Conan the Barbarian.
So I wanted to see how awful a movie it could be for Arnold to have a monumental flop.
At this point, I should admit that I am kind of a fan of Arnold's movies. Yes, some are violent and sometimes brainless. But I enjoy his puns and droll way of poking fun at himself.
Since I'm a fan, I tried to achieve critical balance by dragging the blonde with me. I had to drag her because she has never seen a Schwarzenegger movie she didn't loathe.
Actually, she has never seen more than 30 minutes of one because that's about when she has had enough death and destruction and walks out.
But she didn't walk out this time. She sat there for the entire two hours laughing and enjoying it as much as I did.
When it was over, this confirmed Schwarzenegger hater said: "I can't believe it. It was really fun. It was terrific entertainment."
That from someone who usually puts two fingers down her throat and says, "yuck," when I walk in with a rented Schwarzenegger cassette.
But she was right this time. It's the best Schwarzenegger movie I've seen, even better than when he played Danny DeVito's twin brother.
It was clever and witty, at times hilarious, as it satirized Arnold's own action movies and cop thrillers in general. It ridiculed Hollywood heroes, villains, Mafia stereotypes, crazed car chases, absurd violence and poked fun at one movie cliche after another.
It crammed in so many funny lines and visual touches that you couldn't be distracted for a moment or you'd miss something good.
Having said that, I think I also discovered why the movie might turn out to be a box office failure.
I saw it at the Evanston Theater. The auditorium was about one-third filled, which wasn't bad for a weekday matinee.
But except for my wife and me, the audience was made up almost entirely of teen-agers, almost equally split between blacks and whites, with a smattering of slouching younger male adults of the sort who breathe only through their open mouths.
That's probably your basic Schwarzenegger audience, since literature professors and retired biddies and geezers don't flock to see the Terminator blow half a city to bloody bits.
And this audience didn't laugh. The best satirical lines flew right over their heads.
There wasn't even one chuckle when Laurence Olivier, playing Hamlet, suddenly became Schwarzenegger playing Hamlet. Why would they laugh? Hamlet, Olivier? Who'd they ever blow up? As one of the youths behind me said to his buddies: "Wha' the [bleep] was that all about?"
The plot becomes complicated. Actually, it is a movie within a movie, with some goofy twists and turns.
And this prompted one lad, several rows ahead, to yell: "Hey, does anyone know what the [bleep] is goin' on?"
Another young fellow, about 10 rows away, yelled back: "If you figure out what this [bleep] is about, you tell me, man."
And when it reached the point where the real Arnold Schwarzenegger confronts the movie's fictional Arnold Schwarzenegger (I told you the plot is a bit tricky), one frustrated adolescent shouted: "Hey, what is this crazy [bleep]?"
(This, incidentally, is why I seldom go to movie theaters. And I'll continue to stay away until theaters hire sadistic ushers or it becomes legal to carry and use a pistol with a silencer.)
I looked around and saw one lad sprawled over three seats, staring up at the ceiling. His brain cells were overwhelmed and he had given up.
Nearby, another youth had put on his Walkman earphones and, eyes closed, was banging on his knees to the rhythm of his ear-busting music.
Who would have thought it possible? Arnold Schwarzenegger made a movie that is too deep, too profound, too demanding for an Arnold Schwarzenegger audience to appreciate.
Actually, it isn't very deep, profound or demanding. Not if you have an IQ over 98, are not confused by dialogue that is more than the word [bleep], and go to movies for something other than to see someone's head blow up in living color.
But by now, the word-of-mouth reviews must be devastating. Every young person in that audience must be telling his pals: "Hey, they were always talking [bleep] I didn't know nothing about. Too much talk and it was heavy stuff, man. Forget it."
Poor Arnold. He should have remembered what George S. Kaufman said about satirical plays: "Satire is what closes Saturday night."
But if you have read this entire column without moving your lips or reaching for a dictionary, take a chance and see it. Anything that confuses and frustrates modern teen-agers can't be all bad.