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Is ‘brainy’ a box office turnoff?

Studios are turning to cerebral directors to helm their tentpole pics, but “The Hulk’s” B.O. results may determine if the trend will continue.

The opening of “The Hulk” this week may shed some light on an intriguing question: Should popcorn movies attempt to be brainy?

In assembling “The Hulk,” Universal decided to bet on two very serious individuals named Ang Lee and James Schamus. Tentpole pictures customarily are put in the hands of filmmakers who come from the revved-up world of musicvideos or commercials, but the folks at Universal wanted to raise the bar.

And they are not alone. A look at production schedules around town reveals similar examples.

Warner Bros. opted to go with Alfonso Cuaron on the next “Harry Potter,” a sharp turn from Chris Columbus, who did the first two Potters. That same studio is entrusting “Catwoman,” starring Halle Berry to, of all people, Pitof — yes, that’s his name. He’s a French director whose previous movie was called “Vidocq.” I wonder if Halle Berry ever caught that film.

It doesn’t stop there. Chris Nolan, who gave us the opaque “Memento,” is now working on the next “Batman.” Paul Schrader, the man behind such somber works as “Hard Core” and “Affliction,” recently finished a sequel to “The Exorcist.” And Tobey Maguire is turning to a director named Steven Shainberg to helm “Urban Townie,” which will be the first film from his new production shingle. Shainberg’s last effort was an arthouse film titled “Secretary” that had an outre S&M subtheme.

So the question is clear: Can you infuse a little art into the tentpole business?

A glimpse at the past yields mixed messages. It was a bold idea in 1996 to hire Jean-Pierre Jeunet to do “Alien 4: Resurrection,” since he’d served up some lively fare in his oddball art film “Delicatessen.” It didn’t work. Jeunet was much happier two years later when he returned with “Amelie.”

One of my favorite directors of the ’70s was Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch physicist who gave us “Spetters” and “Soldier of Orange.” He got lost in Hollywood working on wannabe tentpoles like “Showgirls” and “Starship Troopers.”

I’ve talked to several of the studio production chiefs about all this and find myself empathizing with their reasoning. They know they have to deliver their share of “event pictures,” but they dread sitting through dailies each afternoon that look like a series of comicstrips. It’s as though they’re haunted by the ghost of “Godzilla.” Why not introduce a different sensibility into the equation, they reason.

Arguably, this experiment worked for “Spider-Man.” The character Maguire played was not your “Terminator”-style action hero. He was sensitive, he was vulnerable, and he never said, “I’ll be back.” Of course, he will be back, and at a formidable wage.

But “Spider-Man” is a world apart from “The Hulk,” who is really a brooding and brilliant young nuclear biotechnologist at Berkeley — a man who seems frozen between Stan Lee and Chekhov.

Instead of “Spider-Man”-type teaser scenes presaging the power antics to come, there are quietly dramatic opening moments in which Bruce Banner (shortly to become “The Hulk”) gets dumped by his girlfriend. She’s played by Jennifer Connolly as though she were still coping with “A Beautiful Mind.”

Stan Lee, the comicbook guru, apparently was inspired by “Frankenstein,” but Ang Lee seems eager to marry styles from his previous movies like “Sense and Sensibility” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” As Variety‘s Todd McCarthy pointed out, this approach conveys some fascinating insights into genetic mutations, radioactive exposure and primal rage, but the movie is very long and, in some stretches, rather cerebral. In short, this is very grown-up popcorn.

So will it play in Peoria? The opening signs are certainly promising, but then most of the tentpoles tend to be two-week wonders. They have a very brief moment in the sun before the public loses interest.

An Ang Lee movie deserves a longer life, if not an afterlife. And if Pitof wants to move from “Vidocq” to “Catwoman,” I think he shares that aspiration.

That’s one reason why the box office numbers this summer will be worth watching.

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