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Can girls out-gross guys at box office?

Femmes find success with raunchy comedies

In 2002, when “The Sweetest Thing,” an R-rated comedy starring Cameron Diaz as a girl as raunchy as any guy in a Judd Apatow film, fizzled at the box office, Hollywood took note.

“It became a hard and fast rule that movies like that” — i.e., racy comedies written from a female perspective — “would fail,” says screenwriter Karen McCullah Lutz, co-writer with Kirsten Smith of “Legally Blonde.”

In the years since, pushing the boundaries in comedic films became the exclusive job of guys like Apatow, Todd Phillips and Sacha Baron Cohen, whose “Bruno” literally thrusts its filmmaker’s very male wares in audience’s faces.

But now the ladies are shaking their own booty around — and nobody’s flinching. A number of edgy, raw comedies, all written by women, have been hitting theaters — and doing well — making the case that, as Smith puts it, “As women, we can bring it the way guys bring it.”

(Smith and Lutz recently “brought it” with the Anna Faris comedy “The House Bunny,” which made “Legally Blonde” look like a Disney special.)

The Naughty Girl movement has become so prominent that some of its members even have a tribe name: “The Fempire” consists of Diablo Cody (“Juno”), Dana Fox (“What Happens in Vegas”), Liz Meriwether (the upcoming “Fuckbuddies”) and Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”). They even support their own, with Mandate announcing today a “Hangover”-esque project from writer Annie Mumolo that Fox and Scafaria will produce.

And then there’s Lynn Shelton, who’s out-duding the dudes with her indie darling “Humpday,” which takes “bromance” to a new level: Two straight men dare one another to make a gay porn movie.

Even though she’s been called the “female Judd Apatow,” Shelton insists there’s a difference.

“I really admire Judd Apatow. I love the way he brought this humanity into a genre that really held little interest to me,” Shelton says. “But I think there is a difference in that he is still trying to make a comedy, and I really was not. ‘Humpday’ has comedic elements, but it has as much poignancy and darkness as comedy. I was not interested in making a broad, Farrelly brothers farce.”

As an independent filmmaker, Shelton had more freedom to pursue an outrageous storyline, but in Hollywood, the road toward transgression for female writers has been wrought with roadblocks.

A few years ago, after a studio executive asked them to “go crazy” and “be as raunchy as you can be” in a script, Lutz and Smith took him at his word, only to have the “appalled” executive tell them they’d gone too far, Smith recalls.

Fast-forward to 2009, when their latest film “The Ugly Truth,” a bawdy romantic comedy with Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl, is coming out with a very R rating.

“When they told us to make it R, the heavens opened and the angels sang,” Lutz says. “We always pitch our dirty jokes to each other knowing we can’t use them. Suddenly, it was like, ‘Oh my God! We can write like we actually talk!’ ”

So what has changed?

Many credit the Apatow movement for making the idea of risque humor palatable, while at the same time leaving a void when it comes to dirty-funny movies that explore women.

(Apatow has been criticized for making his male characters more full-bodied and complex than his female characters.)

Then there was the success of “Sex and the City,” which though written by a man (Michael Patrick King), is told from its leading ladies’ points of view.

Another bellwether was “Juno,” which was not only one of the most profitable films of 2007 but made Oscar winner Cody a household name.

Still, there’s room to grow. Studio executives almost unanimously admit (all off the record, of course) that different boundaries exist when it comes to just how down and dirty scripts can get for men vs. women. One case in point is “Spring Breakdown,” starring Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Parker Posey as girls gone wild on spring break.

Written by Dratch and Ryan Shiraki (who directed), the Sundance hit was relegated by Warner Bros. to a homevideo release because, several sources say, it was deemed too risque (a criticism that would not, presumably, have been lobbed against a cast of Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Vince Vaughn). Also affecting its rollout was the closure of Warner Independent Pictures, which produced the film.

Still, executives such as New Line’s Richard Brener insist that “if the trailer’s funny, you can compete. That’s true for both women and men. It’s a ludicrous assumption when you think comedy is only a place for men. Funny is funny.”

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