"Summertime," the old song says, "and the livin' is easy."
Not so in Hollywood, where the usual suspects ambitious artists and mercenary executives are watching box-office auguries as if their careers depended on every decimal point. Which, in some cases, they do.
In a trend that's been growing for several years, what used to be the summer season now begins when winter has barely departed. Spring releases "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" have already racked up predictable megamillions, followed by hot items like "The Bourne Identity" and "Minority Report."
Not long ago, fantasies and action flicks like these would have waited for the July 4 weekend. Nowadays they leap into action as impatiently as Spidey himself, lest the competition get a head start and lest audiences tire of the slam-bang ad campaigns that are as much a part of the summer landscape as beach parties and ice cream cones.
From the evidence, moviegoers enjoy Hollywood ads almost as much as the pictures they're promoting. Major studios certainly like them, spending an average of $31 million to market each new movie, according to Variety, the show-business trade paper.
Apparently it's working. Box-office grosses are up 20 percent over last year's record take, and there's no end in sight for "event movies" that build must-see buzz ages before they reach the screen.
Still, the studios have a nagging fear that enough may someday be enough.
How many Roman numerals can you string after a title before it simply wears itself out? Is there an endless appetite for sequels, comedies, and adventure yarns? What would happen if teenage boys found another way to spend their money, leaving multiplexes stuffed with fluff most grownups could easily do without?
Hollywood's desire to hedge its bets is one reason why a limited amount of thoughtful fare manages to find theater space even during the warm-weather season. Look hard enough, and you'll find a serious side to this summer's slate if certain movies live up to their promises, that is. Here are some films that might not require us to check our thinking caps at the door along with our surfboards and sunglasses:
Full Frontal, Aug. 2. Originally slated for spring, this offbeat item was pushed to August when writer-director Steven Soderbergh and Miramax Films remembered that a summer opening worked beautifully for Soderbergh's landmark "sex, lies, and videotape," one of the most successful indie pictures of the past dozen years. They're touting "Full Frontal" as an unofficial sequel, focusing on a journalist (Julia Roberts) and an actor (Blair Underwood) whose lives intertwine along with those of many other characters over a 24-hour period. Good sign: Soderbergh scored big with "Traffic" and "Ocean's Eleven," his two previous pictures. Bad sign: His last openly experimental movie, "Schizopolis," sank without a trace.
Signs, Aug. 2. It's back to fantasyland for M. Night Shyamalan, who conquered audiences and critics with "The Sixth Sense" three years ago, and then hit the sophomore jinx with "Unbreakable," which proved very breakable indeed. This time, farmer Mel Gibson ferrets out the meaning of mysterious circles carved into his crops, helped by Joaquin Phoenix as his younger brother. Shyamalan has an unique visual style to match his adventurous story ideas. With added momentum from Gibson's star power, all signs are go for this supernatural drama.
24 Hour Party People, Aug. 9. Back in the 1970s, a British entrepreneur named Antony Wilson went to an early Sex Pistols concert and discerned the future of rock 'n' roll, even though fewer than 50 fans were in the audience. In subsequent years, he ran a record label and nightclub that launched trendsetting bands like Joy Division and the Buzzcocks, seeing himself less as a businessman than as a shaper of pop-culture history. Anchored by superb acting from English star Steve Coogan, this kinetic comedy-drama is directed by Michael Winterbottom, who finds a new style for every movie he makes. It will be interesting to see how today's MTV and hip-hop generation responds to the punk and new-wave scene depicted here.
Blood Work, Aug. 9. Clint Eastwood is a gifted filmmaker, as well as an unstoppable star, and he put his talents to work on both sides of the camera in this thriller about an ailing FBI agent who leaves retirement to track down a killer. It's been a while since he's made a movie as creative as "Bird" or "Bronco Billy," but his presence in the director's chair always promises a provocative ride. It doesn't hurt that the ever-watchable Jeff Daniels and Anjelica Huston will be sharing the screen.
Simone, Aug. 16. Pundits have prophesied that cyber-thespians will replace human actors one of these decades, and here's a taste of what that might be like. The title character is a computer-generated star, cooked up by a has-been director (Al Pacino) when he needs a gimmick to restart his career. Andrew Niccol wrote "The Truman Show" and directed "Gattaca," two of the best techno-trips of recent years. The big question is: Who plays the eponymous heroine, an actress or a cyborg? And will we be able to tell?
Possession, Aug. 30. Neil LaBute courted controversy with the scathing social satires "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," and then went commercial in "Nurse Betty" with mixed results. Prognosticators say his new picture has a romantic air, but the only sure thing is that it has a complicated story. Professors Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow research a secret love affair between two long-ago poets (Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam) whose Victorian morals supposedly ruled out such romances. Paltrow as a professor? That alone should be worth the price of a ticket.
Other movies promise to be fun even if they're not among the summer's more substantial entries. Coming-attractions connoisseurs are anticipating these with special curiosity:
Men in Black II, July 3. The original "MIB" was a smart and funny romp, with razor-sharp casting and uproarious bits of social satire. The good news is that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are returning as Agents J and K, along with Lara Flynn Boyle as the enticingly named Serleena, an alien menace passing as a Victoria's Secret model. The bad news is that director Barry Sonnenfeld stumbled badly with "Big Trouble" a few weeks ago. That could mean he's been putting all his energy into "MIB2," or that he's running out of comic inspiration. Will we leave the movie weak from laughter, or wishing an agent would erase the experience with one of those MIB memory gizmos?
Road to Perdition, July 12. Sam Mendes made an acclaimed directorial debut with "American Beauty," and he's gone even darker with his follow-up film. The time is the Great Depression, the theme is revenge by a grieving widower, and the antihero is a professional killer called the Angel of Death played by Tom Hanks, of all people. This is expected to be one of the season's most somber pictures, but Hanks may triumph as a bad guy à la Denzel Washington in "Training Day" last year. Certainly the supporting cast is a knockout: Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alfred Molina, and Stanley Tucci are always worth watching.
K-19: The Widowmaker, July 19. Nuclear jitters have become a surprisingly popular Hollywood subject. Harking back to the cold-war era, Katherine Bigelow's thriller tells the fact-based story of a Soviet nuclear submarine with a malfunctioning engine, posing the threat of an all-out meltdown and warlike retaliation from alarmed American forces. It wouldn't be summer without a Harrison Ford picture, and Liam Neeson joins him at the helm. Here's hoping their performances and their Russian accents are up to the task.
If this parade of would-be blockbusters puts you in the mood for something different, don't forget that adventurous theaters will provide a touch of counterprogramming with high-quality international films. At least two are full-fledged masterpieces. I'm Going Home (Aug. 14), by Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, stars Michel Piccoli as an aging actor nearing the end of his career with mingled nostalgia and regret. Éloge de l'amour (Aug. 26), by French master Jean-Luc Godard, is a visually sumptuous and intellectually challenging look at cinema's habit of appropriating history including horrors like the Holocaust for crass commercial purposes.
Summer doesn't have to be a silly season, after all.