Think Different

Could it be that this year's crop of summer movies actually requires a brain cell or two?

It's usually right about this time of year that film critics, especially those of advancing years, begin to feel a slow chill of dread creep up their spines. Suppressing that urge, they generally find it quickly replaced by a sudden rush of sneering condescension and smug mock-martyrdom. "Oh no!" they cry. "This is summer, the season of dumb! How can I possibly suffer so ignominious a fate as to be forced to watch big-budget movies aimed at those less intelligent than myself?" Meanwhile, the movies themselves break all records.

But the "dumb" blockbuster might just be passé this year. Arguably the biggest film of the summer will be The Matrix Reloaded, and the few negative reviews that have surfaced so far tend to complain that the plot is too complicated. The comic-book adaptation The Hulk would seem on the surface to be dumb -- a big green guy who smashes stuff isn't exactly the picture of subtlety -- yet it's being directed by Ang Lee, who claims to be making a tragic film in the Hamlet mold (given his track record, that may not be an idle boast). And Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines may not have James Cameron on board any more, but substitute director Jonathan Mostow is known for thrillers of above-average intelligence like Breakdown and U-571.

Further taxing the minds of the dumb is a series of unnecessarily wordy movie titles, most with colons in the middle. In addition to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (cleverly shortened to LXG by the marketing department), there's Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, the unwieldy Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and the grand champion of them all, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. To quote Butt-head, "If I wanted to read, I'd go to school."

Goofy but fun: Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu are back in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.
Jasin Boland
Goofy but fun: Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu are back in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.

Not that stupidity is entirely absent -- one could go broke overestimating the public's intelligence. Still, we should make a distinction between big, glorious, goofy dumb (Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II) and abrasively awful dumb (Pokémon Heroes, Jeepers Creepers 2).

The time-honored summer counterprogramming tradition is to offer romantic comedies, and despite a copious lack of both Julia Roberts and Freddie Prinze Jr. this year, 2003 doesn't disappoint. We've got retro love (Down With Love), fanciful love (Alex and Emma), French love (Jet Lag, The Housekeeper), gay love (Boys Life 4: Four Play), parental love (Freaky Friday), surrogate sibling love (Uptown Girls), and, of course, the unnatural love of baked goods and wind instruments (American Wedding).

Then there are some interesting mini-trends. Thai cinema may prove to be the next big thing, if the horror flick The Eye (soon to be remade on these shores) and the historical epic The Legend of Suriyothai catch on. Juvenile delinquency seems to be enjoying an art-house resurgence (Ken Park, Thirteen, Sweet Sixteen). And superstar crossovers look to rake in the dough: A Nightmare on Elm Street bogeyman Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) finally takes on Friday the 13th killer Jason Voorhees (some new guy in place of Kane Hodder, who previously owned the role) in Freddy vs. Jason, while two sets of deformed-looking cartoon children get together in the Nickelodeon crossover Rugrats Go Wild. If Hollywood's listening, I'd like to see a Mandy Moore vs. Britney Spears flick next, but it had better be R-rated and feature mud pits.

Finally, two items that warm this critic's heart. Scott Hamilton Kennedy's excellent documentary OT: Our Town, about an inner-city school putting on a play, has at last received distribution and might just hit cinemas near you this season. And MGM is rereleasing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the big screen, where it belongs -- it may not be the best date movie, but males across America who have not yet experienced the glorious union of Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone owe it to themselves to go, possibly more than once.


MAY and JUNE

(Phoenix opening dates noted. Others may not show locally.)

Alex and Emma (June 20) A Rob Reiner romantic comedy allegedly based on the Dostoevski short story "The Gambler" (more seriously adapted with Michael Gambon a few years back). Luke Wilson plays a novelist on deadline, while Kate Hudson is the stenographer who inspires him. As Wilson enacts scenes from the book in his head, Hudson morphs into multiple characters, thereby allowing the actress to try several different hair styles and accents on for size. If she pulls it off, people may stop comparing Hudson to her mom. (Warner Bros.)

Bruce Almighty (May 23) Bruce (Jim Carrey) has a decent apartment, a job in TV news, and a girlfriend who looks like Jennifer Aniston. By movie standards, this means he's suffering, and when he blames God for it, the Supreme Being (Morgan Freeman, born to play God) gives Bruce the reins of power so he can see that it ain't easy being Lord. Carrey's Ace Ventura pal Tom Shadyac directs, so here's hoping the rubber man's back in form. (Universal)

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