The superheroes have flown. Send in the clowns.
Sure, there have been a few jokers out there this summer besides the one in "The Dark Knight". But with all the flashy comic-book derring-do at the multiplex, they've been easy to overlook. But Steve Carell, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell have all offered up cinematic frivolity with varying degrees of success.
However, their tried-and-true tomfoolery will soon seem as quaint as vaudeville routines as two of the most-anticipated and potentially genre-altering summer comedies in years open within a week of each other this month.
Coming off the Judd Apatow production line is "Pineapple Express" (Wednesday), which pairs "it" goofball of the moment, co-writer Seth Rogen, with his "Freaks and Geeks" bud James Franco. They're potheads on the run from thugs — think hard-core action with a bad case of the munchies.
The following week (Aug. 13) is "Tropic Thunder", which lampoons over-earnest '80s war movies and inside-Hollywood stupidity. Featured is an elite force of funny men headed by director/co-writer/co-producer Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. There's even a disguised weapon of mass hilarity: Tom Cruise, in bald cap and blubber suit, as an out-of-control studio executive.
""Pineapple Express" is up there with "The Big Lebowski" and Sean Penn in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"," says Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers. "Good stoner fun. It's Superbad seven years older with the same friendship idea. You get the feeling these men will not grow up, ever."
As for "Tropic Thunder", Travers says, "It's Ben Stiller at his smartest, laughing at Hollywood and himself, with Cruise dropped in the middle with his peak performance."
Breaking the Comedy Mold
On the surface, the shaggy Cheech and Chong update and the cartoony Platoon spoof are as disparate as the size of their budgets — $25 million for Express and at least $100 million for "Thunder".
Yet they do have commonalities: Asian drug gangs, a deep disregard for political correctness, "bromantic" overtones of male bonding and newcomer Danny McBride, a first-class stooge who slays audiences every time he pops up in either movie.
And both films are signposts to where barrier-breaking big-screen comedies are heading. Back in the '80s, the summer laughs came supersized in such PG blockbusters as the "Ghostbusters" films and "Back to the Future". In the '90s, such gawky guys as Saturday Night Live grads Mike Myers (the "Austin Powers" series), Adam Sandler ("Big Daddy") and Ben Stiller ("There's Something About Mary") took command.
But this decade has been all about breaking the rules with shocks that go beyond the hair-gel gross-outs in Mary. In fact, the explicit sexual high jinks that came back into vogue with Apatow's "40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" no longer are quite so superbad. What's cool now is excessive violence that borders on the Tarantinoesque, the sound of gunfire accompanying ear-scorching obscenities.
Even Apatow, whose other projects rarely feature AK-47s and fiery explosions, was taken aback by the level of bloodshed in "Pineapple Express." His explanation: "It's the video-game generation. I say, 'We've gone too far,' and Seth just laughs and says, 'What are you, 100 years old?' "