FUNNY IN THE SUN

The Baltimore Sun

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

SEX AND THE CITY -- (New Line Cinema) The fab four retake Manhattan four years after the end of the TV series. With Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Hudson. Opens May 30.

YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN -- (Columbia Pictures), Adam Sandler stars as an Israeli commando who fakes his own death to pursue his dream of becoming a hairstylist in New York. With John Turturro and Rob Schneider. Opens June 6.

THE PROMOTION -- (Dimension Films) Two assistant managers of a corporate grocery store vie for a coveted promotion. With Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly. Opens June 13.

GET SMART -- (Warner Bros.) Secret agent 86 attempts to outwit the evil criminal mastermind Siegfried and KAOS. With Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin. Opens June 20.

THE LOVE GURU -- (Paramount Pictures) Mike Myers stars as an American foundling left at an ashram in India. He eventually returns to the U.S. as a self-help and spirituality authority and winds up mediating the marital woes of a hockey star on a team with the Stanley Cup at stake. With Jessica Alba and Justin Timberlake. Opens June 20.

HANCOCK -- (Columbia Pictures) Will Smith plays a superhero with an image crisis - he does as much harm as good. With Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman. Opens July 2.

MEET DAVE -- (20th Century Fox), Eddie Murphy is taking the Mini Me idea to new lengths. In the aliens-invade-Earth comedy, Murphy plays the thumb-sized captain of a spaceship that looks strikingly like, well, Murphy. Opens July 11.

MAMMA MIA! -- (Universal Pictures) The ABBA songbook provides the lyrics and melodies for this comic romance about a former girl-group singer, her about-to-be-married daughter and the three men who might be her daughter's father all getting together on an idyllic Greek island. With Meryl Streep, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski. Opens July 18.

STEP BROTHERS -- (Columbia Pictures) Chronic slackers' mother and father marry, creating an unwieldy family unit and making for a very crowded couch. With John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell. Opens July 25.

THE ROCKER -- (Fox Atomic), Twenty years after being kicked out of an '80s hair band, drummer Robert "Fish" Fishman reclaims his rock-god throne by joining his nephew's band. With Rainn Wilson and Christina Applegate. Opens Aug. 1.

SWING VOTE -- (Touchstone Pictures) Thanks to the machinations of his precocious daughter, a beer-swilling underachiever finds that an election comes down to his vote. With Kevin Costner, Paula Patton and Kelsey Grammer. Opens Aug. 1.

THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS -- (Columbia Pictures) A hard-core stoner witnesses a murder by a crooked cop and in a panic dumps his stash of rare weed, triggering a wacky pursuit. With James Franco and Seth Rogen. Opens Aug. 8.

TROPIC THUNDER -- (Paramount Pictures/Dreamworks) A war-film shooting in Southeast Asia turns into reality for an action movie star and his co-stars. With Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. Opens Aug. 15.

HAMLET 2 -- (Focus Features) A failed actor turned high school drama teacher rallies his students as he stages a politically incorrect musical sequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet. With Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener and Amy Poehler. Opens Aug. 22.

THE HOUSE BUNNY -- (Columbia Pictures) The members of a struggling sorority have a thing or two to learn from a banished Playboy bunny, and vice versa. With Anna Faris, Colin Hanks and Emma Stone. Opens Aug. 22.

Release dates are subject to change.

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