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Fickle audiences force comic innovation

Laffers look for action traction

When it comes to comedy, moviegoers have always been fickle. And chasing those tastes is a tricky, if potentially lucrative effort for Hollywood.

Auds love to laugh, and will reward pics that capture the zeigeist handsomely at the B.O. Think “There’s Something About Mary,” “Meet the Parents,” “Knocked Up” and, more recently “The Hangover.”

But comedy is an elusive beast. Tastes shift practically overnight. Comedy stars rise and fall. And the styles of comedy are often cyclical, with subgenres ranging from gross-out to teen-centric to romance coming into favor then falling out again. These days, for instance, laugh-hungry studios are chasing after action comedies of all stripes, even femme driven, as well as buddy pics.

Nailing the zeitgeist is no easy feat for studios and their long lead times.

Last year, the three biggest B.O. surprise comedies were “The Hangover,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “The Proposal.” But some of the biggest flops of the past two years have been laffers, including Mike Myers starrer “The Love Guru,” Jack Black topliner “Year One,” Will Ferrell starrer “The Land of the Lost” and the Eddie Murphy films “Meet Dave” and “Imagine That.”

It’s the oldest rule in the book: Dying is easy, comedies are the hard part,” says one studio topper.

Still, it’s easy to understand why Hollywood keeps chasing the next great yukfest.

Hangover” — a bawdy situational comedy — is the poster child for why the studios would like to be laughing all the way to the box office. Without pricey special effects or big star salaries, the pic took in $277 million domestically and bagged another $190 million internationally.

Comedies also can play longer in theaters, as auds look for alternatives to big-budget f/x films and word-of-mouth brings in wider circles of moviegoers.

Laughter is the great universal, and they love to laugh in groups,” says the studio topper.

Producer and director Ivan Reitman says comedy is one of the hardest genres to get right.

It’s toughest in direction, because tonality makes all the difference in the world. You can’t overplay your hand. ‘The Hangover’ worked so well because it was a great character comedy,” says Reitman, who met helmer Todd Phillips early on and produced his early laffers “Old School” and “Road Trip.”

After the success of “Hangover,” Phillips ascended to the top of the comedy production ranks, an ever-shifting tier that has over the past 20 years included the likes of Reitman, John Hughes, the Farrelly brothers, Barry Sonnenfeld and Judd Apatow. No one rules for more than a few years at a time.

In 2008, Apatow produced no fewer than five comedies. Audiences couldn’t get enough of his trademark R-rated raunch and youth sensibilities in pics like “Knocked Up,” “Superbad” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” And while the prolific hyphenate still has nearly a dozen pics in the pipeline, the more serious-toned “Funny People” seemed to signal a shift in his comedic interests.

And there are always new filmmakers waiting to grab their moment. Helmers of hardcore action, stalwart indies and mumblecore all want in on the laughs: David Fincher, Lisa Cholodenko and Jay and Mark Duplass all have comedies on the slate. Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” opens in a limited run July 7, followed by two days later by the limited bow of the Duplass’ “Cyrus.” Fincher’s Facebook pic “The Social Network” opens wide Oct. 1.

Other high-profile comedies this year include two Adam Sandler-Kevin James pairings; “Grown Ups,” also starring Chris Rock and opening June 25, and “The Zookeeper,” bowing Oct. 8. There’s also Jay Roach’s July 23 “Dinner for Schmucks,” toplining Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, and David Gordon Green’s “Your Highness,” opening Oct. 1 and starring James Franco, Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel.

The comedy trend lately, though, is again toward action comedies … with new takes on familiar material and some fresh spins on old genre conventions.

Two upcoming comedies look to 1980s films and TV shows for their inspiration, including Universal’s “MacGruber” on May 21 and Fox’s “The A-Team” on June 11. “MacGruber” is adapted from the “Saturday Night Live” skit, which was itself inspired by the 1980s TV series “MacGyver.”

Filmmakers also are keen to recreate the buddy cop films of the 1980s, which did huge B.O. biz.

Top filmmakers are huge fans of the action comedies of the cheesy 1980s films and TV shows, so studios are able to get them,” says manager Paul Young of Principato Young.

Bruce Willis-Tracy Morgan starrer “Cop Out” was one of the first to test the waters, grossing a so-so $44 million since opening last month. But the summer and fall are have plenty of action comedies still in store.

On Aug. 6, Sony opens Adam McKay’s “The Other Guys,” about two bumbling cops played by Mark Whalberg and Will Ferrell. Robert Schwentke’s “Red,” about a former black ops agent, played by Bruce Willis, reassembling his old team is slated for October.

Manager Young says he’s seeing a lot of interest among studios for high-concept action comedies, such as “30 Minutes or Less,” about an unsuspecting pizza deliveryman who gets caught up in a crime caper. Ruben Fleischer is set to direct the Media Rights Capital-financed pic. (Fleischer also recently sold an original action-comedy pitch to DreamWorks Studios.)

And there are several action comedies that draw their inspiration from the world of superheros, comicbooks and graphic novels. Matthew Vaughn’s raucous “Kick-Ass,” about an average teenager who becomes a self-made superhero, is building substantial buzz for Lionsgate prior to its April 16 bow. One week later, Warners unspools “The Losers,” based on the graphic novel and directed by Sylvain White. Universal’s bigscreen adaptation of comicbook “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” goes out Aug. 13.

Things do move in trends, in terms of what is out there and what studios want. It’s as if something is in the air,” says scribe Timothy Dowling. “I realized the other day that everything I am currently working on and developing right now is an action comedy.”

Dowling, who penned “Role Models,” is presently writing for Universal “Another Midnight Run,” a sequel to the 1985 comedy in which Robert De Niro played a Chicago cop turned bounty hunter. De Niro is in talks to reprise his role.

It’s such a great template,” says Dowling. “Two mismatched guys forced together on the road where anything can happen, and then you add in action and comedy.”

If action comedies are hot, adding romance to the mix seems to be the extra sizzle that has attracted studios.

Shawn Levy’s “Date Night,” which bowed April 9 through Fox and stars Steve Carell and Tiny Fey, was the first of the latest wave. Intrigue also is at the heart of Robert Luketic’s Ashton Kutcher-Katherine Heigl starrer “The Killers,” which Lionsgate opens on June 4. The comedy centers around an undercover government assassin who has to go on the run with his wife.

Action and comedy also run through Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz topliner “Knight and Day,” about a small-town woman who falls in love with a man she comes to suspect is a rogue spy when assassins start chasing her. Fox opens “Knight and Day,” directed by James Mangold, on June 25.

And Hollywood being Hollywood, the studios are looking to replicate recent comedy successes by tapping their filmmakers and stars and by pursuing sequels.

On Nov. 5, Phillips is back in theaters with “Due Date,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis, one of the breakout stars of “Hangover,” along with Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms. And Phillips and Warners began plotting a second outing of “Hangover” even as the first film hit theaters last year.

Comedy sequels sometimes fail to capture the magic of the original, but some material can be a gift that keeps on giving, as with the “Austin Powers” films and Universal’s “Meet the Fockers” franchise.

After two big scores with the Ben Stiller-Robert DeNiro laffers, a third film in the series, “Little Fockers,” opens Dec. 22.

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