Director Paul Verhoeven has set Elisabeth Shue to star in “The Hollow Man,” the big-budget Columbia drama about an invisible man. The film is quickly coming together at Columbia for an April start, and the studio has offered the title role to Robert Downey Jr.

The story, scripted by Andrew Marlowe (“Air Force One”), concerns three scientists, two male and one female. One is turned invisible, and uses his powers for ill means, including stalking the other two, who are in love. It is unclear whether Downey will take the lead, and the studio is looking for the third scientist to round out the drama.

Verhoeven has been planning since last summer to direct “Hollow Man,” which will be produced by Doug Wick and line produced by Alan Marshall, Verhoeven’s usual collaborator. It has taken this long to pull together because it’s a logistically complicated pic.

Verhoeven hopes to do back-to-back films for Sony, following “Hollow Man” with the Barbara Goldsmith book “Other Powers,” which SPE recently acquired for the director. The story is about Victoria Woodhull, a suffragette and free-love advocate early in the century. Verhoeven is developing the film in hopes of enticing Nicole Kidman to star in the biopic, though scripting has just begun.

Shue, Oscar-nominated for “Leaving Las Vegas,” will next be seen in the title role of the John Duigan-directed “Molly,” which MGM opens April 16. She’s repped by CAA. Downey is currently co-starring with Michael Douglas in “The Wonder Boys,” the Paramount film directed by Curtis Hanson and produced by Scott Rudin.

“PATRIOT” DEAL SEALED: Speaking of big-budget SPE films, Mel Gibson has finalized his pact to topline “The Patriot,” which Roland Emmerich will direct from Robert Rodat’s script about the Revolutionary War. His plan to do the movie was first revealed here (Daily Variety, Jan. 19).

Shooting begins by the summer. The film will be produced by Mutual Film partners Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn and Emmerich’s Centropolis partner Dean Devlin. Gibson is currently shooting “The Million Dollar Hotel,” the Wim Wenders-directed drama produced by his production company Icon. Gibson then expects to return to his long-planned directing gig: the Terry Hayes-scripted adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” at Warner Bros.

BEAR MARKET FOR PICS: Writers Ed Decter and John Strauss, who last collaborated with Peter and Bobby Farrelly on “There’s Something About Mary,” are doing more producing than writing these days. They just made a deal to produce “Alpha Male,” a Touchstone comedy that will be written by David Kidd and Ron Burch, a team which Decter and Strauss first employed in their Tom Selleck sitcom “The Closer.”

The film is from an idea by Touchstone exec Todd Garner about a Northern California town overrun by bears. The desperate townfolk hire a guy to humanely herd the critters back to the mountains. Unfortunately, the guy’s experience in this is limited to squirrels.

It’s Decter and Strauss’ third feature with Birch and Kidd. They are exec producing “Head Over Heels” for director Mark Waters (“House of Yes”) and producer Bob Simonds at Universal. In “Glamour Girls,” a Birch-Kidd comedy at New Line, Minnie Driver is attached to star and produce with her sister Kate and Decter and Strauss. As writers, Decter and Strauss are working on “The Spin Doctor,” a Warner Bros. comedy about a PR crisis manager hired to save the Knicks from scandal. It is envisioned as a vehicle for Chris Rock, with 3 Arts producing. All four writers are repped by Broder Kurland Webb & Uffner.

FARINA TO “GAMES”: Dennis Farina, the “Crime Story” topliner soon to be seen in “The Mod Squad,” has joined Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise and Charlize Theron in the John Frankenheimer-directed Dimension film “Reindeer Games.” He runs a casino in line to be ripped off. Farina’s repped by Industry Entertainment and the Geddes Agency.

DAILY DOUBLE: Comedy Central’s decision to retire the Five Questions segment of “The Daily Show” when Jon Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn reaped an unexpected dividend last week.

Stewart instead does a four-minute interview during the mock newscast, but that wasn’t enough time for Billy Crystal. Promoting “Analyze This,” Crystal was on such a roll, Stewart couldn’t break for commercials. After their four-minute chat stretched to 14 minutes, exec producer Madeleine Smithberg and Comedy Central exec Eileen Katz persuaded the two comics to do another eight minutes. Instead of putting the interview into the Thursday newscast, they made Stewart’s chat with Crystal a separate half-hour, airing the same night.