After years of outrageous comedy, it turns out Hollywood had somebody left to shock: itself.
Nine months ago, "gross-out" equaled huge grosses at the box office, with films from "Scary Movie" to "American Pie" turning bodily fluids into movie-ticket gold.
Today, offerings from MTV shock auteur Tom Green and those masters of cinematic crudity, the Farrelly Brothers, have fallen flatter than a sewer cover. In fact, audiences have ignored five such comedies in the past two months.
"The spring break movies that held much promise ... just didn't live up to expectations," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, a Los Angeles firm that tracks box-office receipts.
While audiences may not be clamoring for the latest Oscar Wilde remake, some observers - and teens themselves - say the empty theaters signal that moviegoers may be ready for a comedy that's not splattered across the screen.
True, part of the reason could be that the films simply aren't very good. But it may also be that "people are just sick of that puerile type of humor," as Noah Robischon, senior writer at Entertainment Weekly magazine, puts it.
Another reason may be Washington: As theaters, under pressure from lawmakers and the public, have gotten stricter about letting kids in to R-rated movies, the industry is cutting itself off from the audience most likely to giggle when others gag - teenage boys.
Recent returns range from $5.4 million for the incest comedy "Say It Isn't So" to $22.7 million over three weeks for "Joe Dirt," the David Spade vehicle that also features an incest scare as a subplot. That's compared with the movie many credit with starting the current wave of outrageous comedy, 1998's "There's Something About Mary," which earned $176.5 million during its US release.
The most high-profile and boundary-pushing of the bunch, "Freddy Got Fingered" - most of whose sight gags would make inappropriate dinner-table talk - has earned just $11.3 million in two weeks.
Even with the drop-off, Slate critic David Edelstein, who enjoys the Farrelly Brothers' sweet but crude movies, believes gross-out comedies are in a much healthier position today than they were in the 1980s. Then, a "Porky's" remake was coming out every other week. "It was mind-numbing," he says.
Imitation is the sincerest form of vulgarity
But others believe the same kind of mindless repetition does exist today and is what lies behind the current low receipts. Of course, this wouldn't be the first genre to fall prey to oversaturation. "In the 1980s, everyone was trying to remake 'Star Wars'...," says Jack Mathews, movie critic for the New York Daily News. "They lost money hand over fist. Every time there is a major hit that seems unique and marketable, Hollywood will make them until they lose all the money they made on the first."
And until recently, there was money to be made - and plenty. In addition to "There's Something About Mary," "American Pie," "Big Daddy," "Scary Movie," and "Austin Powers 2" all cleared well over $100 million in the past two years - as did genre pioneer "Animal House."
But today, "The knockoffs are just vulgar for vulgarity's sake," says Mr. Mathews.
Troy Robinson, Hugo Lallo, and Jake Ostorowski would agree with that assessment. The teens had just finished seeing "Joe Dirt" at the Hoyt's Cinema 14 in Bellingham, Mass.
"Our friend said it was wicked good, but it was wicked stupid," says Jake. Troy is more succinct: "It was bad."
In fact, they hadn't planned to see "Joe Dirt" at all. But Jake is 15, and they weren't allowed into their first choice, the R-rated "Along Came a Spider."
"I can't believe you made us see that movie," laughs Hugo.
Their change in plans is one that's become more common since last year, when the studios faced congressional heat for marketing adult content to minors. Since comedies are having to go further to shock in an era when "Animal House" seems lovably tame, that's meant R-ratings on more than a few films.
Under the new guidelines, R-rated films can't be marketed during children's or teen TV shows, or before G or PG movies. While teens are no doubt still getting into adult films, as Jake proves it's gotten tougher.
Since teens make up half the moviegoing audience, that means Hollywood may have to start looking elsewhere for laughs. "We'll see a change in the way movies are marketed, resulting in a change in" what movies are made, says Mr. Robischon. "I don't see what other options studios have unless they're serious about doing battle with Washington and the FTC. And I'm not sure they can afford that battle."
But even if Hollywood moves beyond the gross-out genre, there are still a number already in production. Rob Schneider will grace screens June 1 as the victim of an unethical bit of surgery in "The Animal." Mr. Dergarabedian says two highly touted summer sequels, "American Pie 2" and "Scary Movie 2," will show whether the shock humor has any yuks left.
Troy, Hugo, and Jake won't be waiting in line for either. "They could have made [Scary Movie] so funny," laments Jake. "Instead they made it all sex and drug humor."
"It's done," says Hugo of "Pie." "It was done the first time."
He and Troy are holding out for another sequel, the martial arts-meets-motormouth comedy "Rush Hour 2."
In other words, no Oscar Wilde - yet.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor