Why gross-out movies don’t gross enough

Peter Bart is on vacation. His column will return Sunday, Aug. 30. The column below originally ran Aug. 16, 1998.

A GLIMPSE AT THE BOX OFFICE charts often raises intriguing questions about our pop culture. For example: Do the meager openings of “BASEketball” and “Jane Austen’s Mafia” suggest that the market for gross-out movies is less substantial than anticipated? Has the moviegoing public’s appetite for jokes about semen, onanism and mental retardation been satiated by “There’s Something About Mary”?

This question is causing considerable angst among distributors whose gross-out movies are lined up on the runway, and there are a good number of them. They include “Wrongfully Accused” from Warner Bros., “Dead Man on Campus” from Paramount, “Stiff Upper Lips” from Miramax, not to mention “Orgazmo” from October.

Several theories have been advanced to explain the meager reception for the latest crop of gross-out movies.

– The reality of our political life is so gross that no one needs to go to the movies for more of the same. When the press, not to mention latenight comics, obsess over semen stains, filmmakers find it all but impossible to be more outrageous.

HOW COULD EVEN THE FARRELLY brothers top Monica Lewinsky’s decision to save her famous dress and send it home to mommy for safe-keeping? The fields of politics and entertainment started converging back in the Kennedy era, and today that amalgamation, for better or worse, seems complete.

– The latest cluster of gross-out movies relies too heavily on male-oriented locker-room misogyny that turns off the female moviegoer. The women in these films, like Cameron Diaz in “There’s Something About Mary,” are always gullible airheads who are suckers for every ploy.

Consider the possibilities if filmmakers moved beyond their farts-and-phalluses fixation and dealt humorously with male frailties — impotence, premature ejaculation, mommy fixations, etc. The women might stream to the theaters if guys were the airheads for a change.

– The new gross-out movies just aren’t funny enough. Ever since the Zucker Brothers got “Airplane!” aloft in 1980, the machine-gun school of humor has been predominant — keep firing off the jokes until one or two of them hits.

THE FORMULA WORKED for the Zuckers for two reasons. Their jokes were funny, and they also had a genius for casting the right straight men, such as Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves and, of course, Leslie Nielsen, the Charlie Chaplin of the gross-out genre. The same cannot be said for movies like “Jane Austen’s Mafia” or “BASEketball.”

There’s another issue, too. The great old-time comics never used a joke in a movie until they’d tried it before a live audience. Most either grew up in the final days of vaudeville or emerged from the comedy club circuit. Today’s gross-out filmmakers think that testing their material for research mavens like Joe Farrell will suffice. Get real, guys.

So where does this leave us? The gross-out purveyors may be facing the same dilemma that confronts more conventional genres of movies. Grossiosity per se is simply not enough. Prosaic elements like character, story and, yes, even laughs must be part of the equation.

If that can be accomplished, then the handwriting is on the wall. For the remainder of the ’90s and beyond, gross-out will be as ubiquitous as takeout. Now that’s a prospect even more daunting than having to read Kenneth Starr’s final report.

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