June 20 will be a freaky Friday.
Arthouse kingpins Ang Lee and James Schamus will try to show that “The Hulk” has deep thoughts lurking within his big green cranium.
On that same weekend, Rob Reiner hopes audiences discover the lighter side of Fyodor Dostoevsky with the romantic comedy “Alex & Emma.”
Hollywood’s never been shy about taking liberties with its source material. But these two projects raise the question of just how far one can twist a genre and still score at the box office.
(The films’ similarities end there: “The Hulk” is a super-sized summer tentpole, costing $137 million; “Alex & Emma” is a more modest $30 million effort.)
It was clear from the start that helmer Lee and his longtime collaborator Schamus, currently co-prexy of Focus Features, never set out to make just another popcorn-munching comicbook pic.
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When Lee was in early talks to direct “The Hulk” back in 2001, his coming aboard seemed like one more example of an arthouse auteur being lured to big-budget Hollywood.
At the time, Lee was coming off the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which Schamus co-wrote and produced. It eventually grossed a stunning $128 million domestically.
But from the very beginning, Schamus said Lee’s “Hulk” would have deeper meaning.
“The relationship that has always been neglected in the various screen versions of the Hulk is that between the protagonist and his Hulk inner self,” Schamus says.
Filmmakers and movie execs are famous for ascribing literary heft to the most unlikely works.
MGM’s press notes for “Bulletproof Monk,” for example, describe the forgettable kung-fu actioner as “a fabulous cross between a contemporary Western buddy comedy and a kind of Eastern philosophical epic.”
As release of “The Hulk” nears, though, the creators have seemingly become more intent on discussing the film’s psychological underpinnings.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, helmer Lee said: “What really gets to me is the alter ego part. The true self we are all hiding in the dark. That’s the Hulk to me.”
Schamus followed in a May 11 New York Times piece wherein he held forth on how the Hulk fit into a tradition of “great epic protagonists” driven by rage.
“Certainly spectacles of mayhem have always had their pure entertainment value,” Schamus wrote. “But on a deeper and more important level, such spectacles hold little fascination without the heroic figures who are inscribed with them. and the Hulk provides the opportunity to explore a particularly complex member of the heroic tribe.”
Asked if he risked thinking about the Hulk harder than his audience wanted to, Schamus tells Variety, “There’s no law that says you have to insult people’s intelligence in order to entertain them — and Hulk is a huge entertainment.”
U production prexy Mary Parent says that anyone who sees the “Hulk” trailer, which shows Eric Bana as Bruce Banner being exposed to gamma rays that trigger his transformation into the Hulk, couldn’t help but see it as “a fun event film.”
Still, she adds, “You get a sense that there is real emotion at stake. It’s not just about Bruce has to save the world. First, Bruce has to save himself.”
Parent resists suggestions the studio has an over-intellectualized Hulk on its hands.
“You have to believe he is an extension of our id, that he is a manifestation of Bruce Banner’s suppressed rage,” Parent says.
Fair enough, but do summer auds stand in line to explore an extension of their id?
“Hopefully, it broadens your audience,” Parent says. “I think there are people out there who would normally say, ‘I’m not going to see a comicbook film,’ who might be intrigued by this.”
Not in the mood to battle inner demons — or stand in presumably long lines to see the anguished Hulk?
Warner Bros. is releasing that same weekend the perfect alternative in “Alex & Emma,” which, as it happens, was inspired by Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler.”
Written in 1866, “The Gambler” tells the story of Alexi, a young man who cannot escape the dangerous undertow of compulsive gambling. The novel has been the basis for more than a half-dozen movies and telepics. Not surprisingly, all were dramas.
“Alex & Emma,” however, is a frothy romantic comedy in which Luke Wilson portrays a handsome writer who needs the help of Kate Hudson, a court reporter who lives downstairs. She’s got to transcribe the book that’s in his head because if he doesn’t publish, he’ll perish — he owes $100,000 from an ill-advised visit to the dog track.
In “The Gambler,” we leave Alexi in the roulette wheel’s grip. While it would be unfair to ruin the ending of “Alex & Emma,” suffice to say that we leave the couple in their own sweet clinch.
Screenwriter Jeremy Leven (“The Legend of Bagger Vance”) first became interested in “The Gambler” while working in Moscow more than 10 years ago. He thought the novella had contempo possibilities, but he got really excited when a Russian pal told him about the backstory.
Dostoevsky had received an advance from an unscrupulous publisher who gave him a year to write “The Gambler.” If the author failed to deliver, for the next nine years he’d owe the publisher everything he wrote.
Having gambled away his advance and with only a month before his deadline, Dostoevsky hired a stenographer to whom he dictated the novel. Not only did they beat the deadline, but Dostoevsky also stopped gambling and married her.
One guess as to which story took precedence in “Alex & Emma.”
“The original screenplay had a lot of ‘The Gambler’ in it, but as it went on, there was not enough room for it,” Leven says.
“The novel has a completely different tone — it was really dark and Alexi has a crush on this woman who goes insane. I think there’s two lines from the book that are still in the movie.”
In fact, the film has strayed so far from its original source that, according to the WGA, “Alex & Emma” is no longer based on “The Gambler.”
Leven now shares his credit not with Dostoevsky, but with Adam Scheinman (“Little Big League”) and Reiner.
If anything, the simultaneous release of “Alex & Emma” and “The Hulk” adheres to the central tenet of counterprogramming: When the competition zigs, you zag. Or, in this case, when a comic book goes introspective, make Dostoevsky mushy.