Spate Of New Pix Tests Limits Of Friendship

Friendship might be thriving on television sitcoms, but is there room on the big-screen for so many lovelorn singles? A spate of romantic comedy ensemble pictures could test audience endurance for the distinctly ’90s genre.

Although their movies were planned or in production before the left-field success of “The Brothers McMullen,” producers of ” Kicking and Screaming,” “Live Nude Girls,” “Beautiful Girls” and “The Pompatus of Love” are no doubt banking on a public taste for platonic fare that helped turn “Brothers” into a $10 million specialty hit.

Trimark’s “Kicking and Screaming,” the first post “Brothers” friends movie out of the gate, has grossed a little more than $380,000 in eight weeks of limited release – enough to raise Trimark execs’ hopes of eventual profit but certainly no indication that audiences are clamoring for more. Critics and New York ticket-buyers have responded well to the feature debut of 25-year-old Noah Baumbach, but the travails of four post-college slackers hasn’t exactly gripped Los Angeles. The movie hits secondary markets in January, with a late spring vid release.

By then, Trimark will have a better idea of how much profit is to be had on the $1.3 million picture, and audiences should have an even keener notion of just what makes a friends movie a friends movie: The recipe, in varying degrees, demands the ensemble casting of actors in their 20s or early 30s, an affectionate if sarcasm-laden camaraderie between the characters, the theme of romantic optimism battling disillusionment, and a seemingly endless stream of pop culture references that makes up (some critics would say passes for) dialogue.

Any resemblance to the immensely popular sitcom “Friends” is as unavoidable as the filmmakers insist is unintentional. “We’ve deliberately tried to stay away from any comparison to ‘Friends,’ ” says Trimark’s publicity VP David Bowers, pointing out that early artwork for “Kicking” ads was revamped because of a similarity to the sitcom’s graphics.

Voice of dissent

Director Richard Schenkman, whose bittersweet romantic comedy “The Pompatus of Love” has garnered decent reviews on the festival circuit but was passed over by the major distributors, bristles at any mention of “Friends” or “The Brothers McMullen.”

“Critics who say that don’t understand how long it takes to get an independent film made,” Schenkman says. “How could these films be rip-offs of ‘The Brothers McMullen?’ We’ve been in production for too long.” And the “Friends”-like banter? “It’s a generational thing. Everyone under 40 grew up on pop culture, and we all recognize the seminal touchstones: Who doesn’t understand the Kirk-Spock dynamic, or that Jeannie and Major Nelson is a relationship thing?”

Although Schenkman’s agents are hoping to patch together a distribution deal, Schenkman believes “Pompatus” – which features such recognizable, although not stellar, names as Jon Cryer, Adrian Pasdar, Mia Sara, Jennifer Tilly and Tim Guinee – would have snared a distrib deal by now had it not been for the abundance of friends movies. “The glut hurts in two ways,” he says. “Creatively, you do end up covering a lot of the same ground. And commercially, critics and entertainment writers can be very dismissive, with the first movie to get attention called ‘innovative’ and the second one an ‘also-ran.’ “

Testing the theory

Not surprisingly, with “Kicking” already in theaters, Trimark’s Bowers concurs with the “also-ran” theory. He points to the distrib’s “Love and a .45” – a violent lovers-on-the-run picture lost amid “Natural Born Killers,” “True Romance” and “Pulp Fiction” – as an also-ran casualty that “never really got its chance.”

Ridiculous, counters Miramax marketing pres Mark Gill when asked about glut economics. “I think it’s just absurd to say that everybody’s got an ensemble movie, so there’s no need to do one,” he says. ” ‘Nixon’ is an ensemble movie too.”

But Miramax’s “Beautiful Girls” does bear at least a first-cousin resemblance to the others: Plot focuses on a young man who returns to his hometown to discuss a major life (and love) decision with his old friends. The ensemble cast includes Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Martha Plimpton, Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly and Michael Rapaport – among others. At $8 million-plus, “Girls” easily sets itself apart from its lower-budgeted counterparts, the cast is higher-profile and the characters have bluer collars than the college-educated types usually populating the genre.

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Still, friends are friends, and “Beautiful Girls” almost certainly will be lumped in with other romantic comedy ensembles when it’s released two days after Valentine’s Day. Consider Republic Pictures’ “Live Nude Girls,” the genre’s femme entry featuring an all-women cast. Dana Delany stars as a bride-to-be who, on the eve of a major life (and love) development, reunites with five old friends and the talk invariably turns to relationships. The $1.5 million film, directed by first-timer Julianna Lavin, opened Dec. 8 in Los Angeles and will roll out to other markets throughout first quarter of 1996.

Could the genre wear itself thin by spring? Miramax’s Gill dismisses the suggestion, saying the success of any film “depends entirely on one thing: Is it any good?”

“Remember the body switch movies? Everybody was sure ‘Big’ would be a failure because it was fourth on the list to be released,” he says. “Let the record show that ‘Big’ is the one that did $100 million.”