24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Comedy

Did a lack of originality help 'The Hangover Part II' this weekend?

May 30, 2011 |  1:00 pm

The raised eyebrows started pretty much the moment the trailer hit the Web.

"The Hangover Part II," Todd Phillips' follow-up to his 2009 smash, wasn't just bringing back the same characters and actors as the R-rated original. It was returning the same structure and plot devices -- good friends lose track of someone from their group during a bachelor-party bender and must then piece together what happened. The pre-release line on "The Hangover" was "It's original and crazy." The pre-release line on "The Hangover 2" was: "Isn't this the same movie I saw two years ago?"

Critics didn't help as the reviews began to roll out: the Rotten Tomatoes score for the new Bradley Cooper-led ensemble comedy was a dismal 36%. (The original notched a respectable 79%.)

And yet when the movie opened this weekend, audiences devoured it. "The Hangover Part II" took in more than $86 million in the Friday-Sunday period alone, the biggest total for any 2-D offering this year. The film's five-day weekend haul of $137 million helped this Memorial Day weekend set an all-time record, downright stunning in a year when most weekends have seen drops over previous years.

Even more remarkable is that the comedy is on pace in the U.S. to outgross the original -- no mean feat when you consider the first film tallied $277 million to become the most lucrative R-rated comedy of all time.  How did it manage all of this?

Comedy sequels are a strange bunch. Many of them don't get made in the first place (witness studios pulling the plug this year on new "Anchorman" and "Zoolander" films). And those that do often disappoint, both at the box office and with fans. Some are outright dogs -- hi, "Sex and the City 2." Others just peter out quietly.  You can extend movies in genres such as science-fiction and horror with relative ease. Try to continue the funny and you frequently end up with yawns.

But if you start ticking off the successes and failures, a pattern begins to emerge: Those that succeed tend to hew very closely to their originals. Once they start departing from what got them laughs and dollars in the first place, their chances of success dip.

There are exceptions, of course. But the pattern holds up surprisingly often, as a quick look at the comedy sequels that tried to mix up the formula demonstrate. "Evan Almighty,"  the follow-up to Jim Carrey's God comedy "Bruce Almighty," made some notable switches when it came out in 2007. Gone was the lead actor, for instance, as was the premise of the divine in everyday life, replaced by politics and a biblical flood. The movie's global box office plummeted by $300 million from the original.

Then there was  "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," which changed up much of its supporting cast and tweaked its concept from a science-based comedy to a historical one. It, too, grossed considerably less than its predecessor.

When filmmakers make even more radical changes, things can really get gummed up. A few years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen decided to take a different one of his clueless foreigner characters from cable television instead of continuing the antics of "Borat." The resulting film, "Bruno," took in less than half of the "Borat" total. Studio comedies are comfort food, and we generally don't want the same dishes made with new ingredients.

In contrast, the few comedy sequels that have worked in recent years rehashed the same shtick.  "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," for instance, came back with an almost identical set of gags in 1999 and vastly outdid its first installment. Ditto for "Meet the Fockers" and "American Pie 2." Few would say filmmakers were doing anything dramatically different with these sequels. But the lack of chance-taking, paradoxically, paid off.

Phillips and the "Hangover" screenwriters have caught some heat for playing it safe. After a major blockbuster, Phillips had the clout to do pretty much whatever he liked with his characters in "The Hangover Part II." Why, after making such a bold movie, would he just try to do the same thing with a new backdrop? But while Phillips may have made a creatively questionable decision, he made a savvy financial move. Comedy sequels have a better shot at the dollars if they stick to what got them there.

If that sounds a little depressing, there is some solace in another fact. Once a movie generates this much money in a second installment, there's usually a third edition not far behind. But audiences tend to punish those movies no matter how safely they play it.

So there might yet be some karmic justice for those not enamored of "The Hangover Part II" -- in 2013.


Bradley Cooper: I'm worried about The Hangover sequel too

With the Hanogver Part II and Kung Fu Panda 2, it's the biggest Memorial Day weekend ever

The Hangover Part II trailer takes us back to an earlier day

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "The Hangover Part II." Credit: Warner Bros.


A 'Father Knows Best' movie, by way of 'Baby Mama'

April 14, 2011 |  3:23 pm


EXCLUSIVE: "Father Knows Best" may seem like a paragon of 1950s Americana, but Fox-based production company New Regency believes there's an update to be found in the classic sitcom.

The firm has been developing a new version of the story for the big screen. Now producers are set to bring on Michael McCullers, director of "Baby Mama," to write a new draft and direct the updated version of the comedy, according to a person who was briefed on the production but not authorized to speak about it publicly. A Fox spokeswoman declined to comment.

When the project was first announced, news accounts described it as telling a multi-generational story about a father of a suburban family with a modern parenting approach who's thrown for a loop when his own father, with a different attitude, comes to live with them. (The debate, then, is over which father knows best.) The film is expected to look at the evolving nature of the American family the way the initial television series did with an emerging suburban middle class more than half a century ago.

McCullers' previous work, of course, deals with another parenting issue -- surrogate motherhood -- though it also engages in questions of modern parenthood. The director is also a "Saturday Night Live" veteran who wrote several of the "Austin Powers" movies.

The original "Father Knows Best" began as a radio program in 1949 and morphed into a television series that ran from 1954 to 1960, starring Robert Young and Jane Wyatt. It told of the Andersons, an idyllic family (two parents, three children) in which Dad, an insurance agent, patiently offers sage advice that nearly always helps his children.

The on-screen Midwestern family has been updated and updated over the years with families that are somewhat less than perfect, from "Roseanne" and "Married ... With Children" 20 years ago to ABC's current dysfunctional-family comedy "The Middle."

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Father Knows Best." Credit: Screen Gems / Kobal Collection

A female 'Hangover,' starring Isla Fisher, is set to land a director

March 17, 2011 |  4:27 pm

EXCLUSIVE: With "The Hangover" a rare recent comedy blockbuster, it was only a matter of time before we saw the concept -- the raunchy antics of a disparate group -- refit and recast with women.

The upcoming "Bridesmaids" attempts one version of the premise, although in a more familiar matrimonial setting. Now "Desperados" looks to execute the concept in a more "Hangover"-appropriate environment: on an outrageous road trip.

The comedy, about a trio of women on a quixotic mission, is moving forward at Universal (which, incidentally, is also behind "Bridesmaids"). Betty Thomas, the director of "Private Parts" and "Dr. Dolittle," is set to be offered the director's chair and is planning on accepting the job, according to  two people who were briefed on the project and were not authorized to speak about it publicly.

Isla Fisher was attached to "Desperados" last year, and the studio is currently seeking two other female leads.

Ellen Rapoport's script, which landed on Hollywood's esteemed Black List two years ago,  has the women heading to Mexico to set right a situation that had one of the women leaving a scathing message for a man she actually likes.

Thomas will get behind the camera instead of Wayne McClammy, the filmmaker best known as the director of the Jimmy Kimmel-Matt Damon viral videos, who at one point was in negotiations to direct. Thomas last directed "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" but opted last year not to direct the third movie in the franchise.

Of course, those with a "Hangover" craving won't have to wait long for the male version: Todd Phillips'  sequel comes out in  May.

--Steven Zeitchik and Nicole Sperling



'Alvin and the Chipmunks' sequel tries to avoid a high-pitched problem

Bradley Cooper: I'm worried about the 'Hangover' sequel too

Ed Helms says don't expect a 'Hangover 3'

Photo: "The Hangover." Credit: Warner Bros.

Meet the new Hollywood trend, sort of the same as the old trend: workplace comedies

March 16, 2011 |  6:28 pm

For many film fans, the high point of the workplace comedy -- or its subgenre, the terrible-boss comedy -- is Mike Judge's "Office Space" from about a decade ago. Or, if you're inclined in a different direction, Dolly Parton's "Nine to 5" from three decades ago.

But all notable Hollywood trends must come back, and so it goes with this one, as moviedom prepares for a mini-wave of workplace comedies.

In July, Seth Gordon's "Horrible Bosses" will hit theaters. The dark comedy is about a group of unhappy employees who decide that life would be better if they kill their boss and features a star-laden cast that -- for good in-jokey fun -- also stars Jennifer Aniston, of course the female lead in "Office Space."

Meanwhile, one of the hot scripts that's been making the rounds in Hollywood over the past few weeks is called "Meet the New Boss." The premise? Several employees grumble about their boss until he's replaced by a robot, which proves to be a lot worse.  (It's written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, the writers on Jonah Hill's upcoming semi-remake of "Adventures in Babysitting.") And then there's a new workplace comedy being developed for Zac Efron.

This on top of "Up in the Air," a dramatic offshoot of the workplace movie, and less successful comedies (see Judge's "Office Space" follow-up "Extract" in 2009).

Moviedom is catching up with television, which after decades of office-set hits such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"  and "Newsradio" has more recently been satirizing cubicle politics with shows like "The Office." And of course any time a recession comes around, there's always some vicarious pleasure to be taken in watching a boss get his.

Some trends don't go away. They just  keep coming back, like an unfinished TPS report.

--Steven Zeitchik



Will 'Horrible Bosses' be 'Office Space' redux?

Photo: A scene from "Office Space." Credit: 20th Century Fox



Cameron Diaz looks to reclaim her R-rated mojo

February 25, 2011 | 12:26 pm

She was last seen feeding popcorn to Alex Rodriguez in Cowboys Stadium, but Cameron Diaz will be up to something naughtier when her R-rated comedy "Bad Teacher" open this June.

The red-band trailer for Jake Kasdan's movie debuted this week. In the movie (which also, incidentally, comes with an "Office" writing pedigree), Diaz plays a junior-high teacher who lusts after a fellow educator played by ex-beau Justin Timberlake while facing off with a rival, er, pedagogue.

It's bawdy, though the first reports that Diaz has gone all-out hard-R were a tad breathless. The actress does reel off profanity, smokes pot and generally doesn't give a fig (or an "F," as the trailer puts it). If you haven't seen it, it's funny in spots and sets up a promising set of comedic dynamics. It's also the first school-set comedy in recent memory in which the adults are the main characters. (You can watch the trailer here; please be over 17.)

Camerond It's been a long time since Diaz has resonated with a mass audience, or had a lead role in anything resembling a hit ("Knight & Day," "The Box" and "My Sister's Keeper" were her last three movies).

Although she's become known for lighter comedy, the actress has, over her career, actually shown flashes of dramatic chops -- as the dowdy animal-lover with a transgendered side in "Being John Malkovich"; as an irresponsible sister in "In Her Shoes"; and even in "Sister's Keeper," in which she played a mother devoted to her terminally ill daughter beyond the point of reason.

The snarling raunchiness of this movie won't require Oscar-level talent -- and there will be those who say that the more aggressive bawdiness smacks of career desperation -- but there is something comeback-y about the role. "Bad Teacher" takes Diaz away from the sunny chipper-ness that broke her out in "There's Something About Mary" but became tired when she recycled it too many times since. But it takes her away from all of that while still keeping her in a comedy, which has proved to be where we most like seeing her. Most Diaz movies and R-rated comedies have disappointed lately, but sometimes hope comes from an unlikely place, like a red-band trailer.

--Steven Zeitchik


 Photos: Cameron Diaz in "Bad Teacher." Credit: Columbia Pictures

Is a new 'Police Academy' a good idea?

February 24, 2011 |  4:17 pm

Even as moviedom marvels at/mocks the idea of “The Bodyguard” coming back, a new blockbuster is returning from the '90s (and '80s) grave. A new installment of “Police Academy,” the comedy franchise about misfit police recruits that made us think Steve Guttenberg was the man (for about three seconds), is making progress on its path to the screen.

David Diamond and David Weissman, the writing team behind the Nicolas Cage drama “The Family Man,” are set to turn in to the studio their draft of a "Police Academy" reboot, said one person who was briefed on the project but not authorized to talk about  it publicly. If the script passes muster with studio New Line, that should set the casting process into motion.

Paul Maslansky, who produced the original, was originally on board to direct, but the person briefed on the project said the studio is looking for a new director.

As for that cast, some of the original actors are expected to return -- Guttenberg in particular has been talking it up in interviews -- and looking at the resumes of some of the other actors, we can't imagine scheduling will be a problem.

Still, Maslansky, who produced all the films during the original go-round, said last year that the new "PA" will contain "a new class. We hope to discover new talent and season it with great comedians." (He also described the new "Police Academy," the eighth in the franchise, as “anything but another movie with a numeral next to it.”)

One wrinkle, though, lies with New Line: The Warner Bros. label confirmed this week that it's consolidating from eight movies per year to just four, which could slow down the project. Then again, "Police Academy" represents one of the more lucrative franchises in the company's catalog, so it may be spared. A studio spokeswoman declined to comment.

Beginning in 1984, the goofy exploits of Mahoney, Hightower Tackleberry and the rest were a spring comedy staple. A new "Police Academy" film arrived, like clockwork, every March or April for six consecutive years,  although by the fourth installment ("Citizens on Patrol") many fans had turned away and the box-office numbers plummeted.

The franchise about uniformed underdogs feels much older than “The Bodyguard,” though the seventh and final installment (“Mission to Moscow”; you can admit it’s in your DVD collection) actually came out in 1994, two years after the Costner-fest.

By the time that final "Police Academy" movie came out, the series had devolved into such camp it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling too protective of the original brand. Then again, given the dive it took at the end, some will no doubt also wonder if another trip to the Blue Oyster Bar is really necessary.

--Steven Zeitchik


 Photo: A shot from "Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment." Credit: New Line




'Bridesmaids': Judd Apatow, now in female form

February 1, 2011 |  6:34 pm

Judd Apatow and his proteges made their names poking at the rituals of the young American male. Can his comedy incubator, which gave us such movies as "Superbad" and "Knocked Up," turn out something equally hilarious for and about women?

That's the question posed by "Bridesmaids," an ensemble female comedy coming out this May about -- of course -- a wedding and the run-up to it. It seems like a Tina Fey-Amy Poehler special,  but it's actually cast from a lower-profile comedy crew ("SNL" and otherwise):  Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Ellie Kemper and Rose Byrne, among others. The movie also marks the feature-writing and lead-billing debut of Wiig, who stole the show in walk-on parts in "Ghost Town" and others, playing the maid of honor.("Freaks and Geeks" creator Paul Feig directed; Apatow, who executive produced that series, is credited here as a producer.)

Judging by the trailer, "Bridesmaids" treads lots of familiar wedding-comedy ground -- the enormousness of the bridesmaid task, the cattiness/smugness of some of the women in the party, the gap between the single and married -- and mixes in flatulence and other R-rated jokes (largely delivered by Melissa McCarthy of "Mike & Molly)."  (You can view the trailer here.)

The whole enterprise raises the question of whether Apatow's innovations translate across gender lines. The filmmaker broke ground over the past six years by combining the gross-out with sweetness. If it felt revolutionary, it was because most male comedies usually lacked the latter.

The female version, by necessity, kind of has to try the opposite. We've seen the treacly women-bonding movie before, but will it all feel fresh with the right amount of pointed R-rated observation (and will it come off better than the scatological humor in "Sex and the City")? If you broke out more than one or two smiles at the trailer, you have a more ticklish funny bone than we (and several of our female colleagues) do. Then again, some of the Apatow crew's best humor is situational, so maybe best to give a first trailer the benefit of the doubt. For now.

-- Steven Zeitchik


 Photo: "Bridesmaids." Credit: Suzanne Hanover / Universal Pictures

Is the seriocomedy in danger of extinction?

January 18, 2011 |  5:42 pm


Some may be inclined to read the soft results for "The Dilemma," the Vince Vaughn-Kevin James movie that opened to $21 million over the holiday weekend, as evidence of the waning power of its stars, or perhaps the diminished appeal of the bromance. But there may be a more specific lesson in the struggles of the Ron Howard movie, which actually plays more serious than some of its ads imply.

The adult drama has been the subject of numerous obituaries in recent years, but looking at the success of movies like "The Social Network" and "Black Swan," it's doing just fine. What hasn't fared so well is the seriocomedy, a story of real people with real problems that also contains its share of laughs -- the drama, essentially, that wears its seriousness lightly.

In the 1980s, this kind of film was common, and commonly successful, particularly from a certain generation of American filmmaker: Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill," James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News," Sydney Pollack's "Tootsie," John Hughes' "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" and so on.

These days? Not so much. In the last six months, nearly every attempt at the seriocomedy has struggled, certainly with audiences and sometimes with critics. First came "Cyrus," then "The Switch," followed by "It's Kind of a Funny Story," "Love and Other Drugs" and now "The Dilemma."

In 2009, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" director Judd Apatow faltered trying a seriocomedy with "Funny People." Brooks, who practically pioneered the genre not only with "Broadcast News" but "Terms of Endearment," struck out in 2010 with "How Do You Know." If you were a studio executive, you could hardly be blamed if you read a good script for a seriocomedy and promptly threw it on the reject pile. (The lone exception seems to be "The Kids Are All Right," a movie that came from well outside the studio system and proved reasonably successful last summer.)

The seriocomedy has never been easy creative ground for directors. To make a good one you need to be proficient at constructing both laughs and drama, and have the dexterity to switch between them. From a business standpoint it's even dicier: How, in this age of marketing, do you retail these tweeners?
Movie-making these days seems to have calcified into genres. Dramas are intense and serious, like "The Social Network," or weepie and inspirational, like "The Blind Side" or "Secretariat." Comedies are  broader and more gross-out, like the best of Adam Sandler or Apatow.

"The problem is trailers," said James Schamus, the Focus Features chief who released "The Kids Are All Right." "These days with the Internet, it's more important than ever, and it's very hard to cut a good trailer for [seriocomedies]. If you go for the laugh you never get the full laugh because the humor is situational, and you can't play the drama because then you kill the comedy vibe."

All of these issues are significant. But when the seriocomedy works, it usually works exceptionally well. Some of the best dramas and comedies of today would have trouble matching the quiet ambition of the best seriocomeides of 25 or 30 years ago. Even as one more bites the dust, it's worth remembering how much promise the genre has, and how much it's worth making the good ones no matter the marketing challenges.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: The Dilemma. Credit: Universal Pictures


Would 'The Three Stooges' work better or worse with younger, less prestigious actors?

January 7, 2011 |  2:59 pm

It's hard to know how well acquainted young people are with "The Three Stooges." Do they regard them as a bedrock of American comedy, or simply think of them as some act their parents (or grandparents) watched?

With 20th Century Fox now making a movie based on the comedy troupe that debuted in the Depression era, the question is: Who should play the slapsticky average Joes?

According to a report this week in the Wrap, "Saturday Night Live's" Andy Samberg, an Australian comedian named Shane Jacobson and "Jackass" co-creator Johnny Knoxville have had discussions about taking on the roles of Larry, Curly and Moe, respectively. (20th Century Fox's aim for the Farrelly Bros. movie, which will be structured as a set of three inter-connected extended shorts, is to shoot sometime in 2011.)

Two people with knowledge of the production who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the project say that these are but a few of the actors being considered. That a whole slew of people, nearly all in their 20s and 30s, are in the running means that the odds it will happen with this particular combination are long. (Fox declined comment for this story.)

But the fact that producers are now considering actors almost exclusively under 40 (of the three known names, Knoxville, at 39, is the oldest) is news in itself. In the movie's previous iteration at financially troubled MGM, it was the troika of Sean Penn, Jim Carrey and Benicio Del Toro who were set to inhabit the roles (playing Larry, Curly and Moe, respectively).

That group clocked in at average age of 46. (Incidentally, the Stooges, at the height of their popularity in the late 1930s and early 1940s, were in their late 30s and early 40s.) More important, the Penn-Carrey-Benicio trio forms a group of serious actors, with a total of seven Oscar nominations among them, which is exactly seven more than this latest group has.

It's not hard to see the motivation for doing the film with the Knoxville-Jacobson-Samberg axis, or something along those lines. In addition to being more comedic and youth-friendly, it's a group that comes a lot cheaper than a trio of A-listers.

Then again, it's also hard not to see a downside. The Stooges, for all their broad physical comedy, actually practiced a subtle form of acting, the kind that this generation's finer performers could almost certainly pull off. With this new group, that certainty wouldn't be there, and neither would the curiosity factor of seeing Sean Penn getting hit in the head with a hammer. We'll see what comes in to take its place.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: The Three Stooges short "Phony Express." Credit: Alex Film Society


'Little Fockers': Why is it so easy to mess up a comedy?

December 28, 2010 |  4:47 pm

It's rare to find critics and audiences agreeing so heartily on anything. But such is the power of "Little Fockers."

Critics thought the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro threequel was one of the worst movies of 2010 -- a dismal 4% of the top reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes deemed it fresh.  And for once, audiences didn't disagree with them -- more than a third of the moviegoers who turned out for the second film didn't show up this time. Those that did weren't impressed: They gave it a middling B- CinemaScore.

When a film performs this badly, there are usually more culprits than a bank-robber convention. And so the post-holiday Hollywood chatter went. The in-law antagonism felt overplayed. Dustin Hoffman needed to be dialed in at the end of the production. The movie's release was pushed back from the summer, a sign of a problem if not a problem in itself. Third installments of live-action franchises rarely work. And adding young children to any comedy franchise, on the big or small screen, is the surest sign of a shark-jump.

But on this long list of factors, it's worth looking in one place in particular: the director's chair. Both "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" were helmed by Jay Roach, the rare filmmaker who can balance the slapstick and the subtle in comedy. Including "Parents" and "Fockers," Roach (who has an Emmy under his belt for the dramatic "Recount") is responsible for four comedy mega-hits that critics liked nearly as much as audiences ("Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" are the other two).

Roach decided not to go for the hat-trick on "Fockers" -- he learned his lesson, apparently, from the last time he tried that, on "Austin Powers in Goldmember" -- and decided to make "Dinner for Schmucks" instead. (He's credited as a producer on "Fockers" but he was concentrating on "Schmucks" much of the time "Fockers" was being made.)  So in his place the production went with Paul Weitz, the "American Pie" director who hasn't done much funny on this side of the 21st century (last credit: "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant").

But it would be unfair to blame Weitz entirely. Many who've gone before him have also stumbled. Top-tier comedy directors are a rare breed in the first place, and even those who reach that status rarely achieve any consistency. Often they spin their wheels trying to do something more serious, a la Judd Apatow and "Funny People." Or they simply find their touch, and the times, suddenly eluding them, something that was painfully obvious with James L. Brooks' recent "How Do You Know."

John Hughes was one of the few to buck the trend, but that was a different time, and his was a different comedy. Shawn Levy was considered an exception too, but then came "Date Night."

The lack of reliability is why comedies so often get made on the basis of their star (and why, in turn, every third comedy in this country involves Adam Sandler). When that star does come on board, studios often don't even bother trying with a real filmmaker and just bring in a director who doesn't cost much and knows when to get out of the way.

Weitz is better than that. But he's not that much better. His punchless movie, in a season of punchless movies, makes you realize that if someone's going to make a comedy they should try to get a Jay Roach or maybe they shouldn't try at all.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Little Fockers." Credit: Universal Pictures


'Little Fockers' falls short of box-office expectations

Movie review: 'Little Fockers'



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