The record-breaking box-office success of "Spider-Man" is the sort of phenomenon that exposes the summer-movie sweepstakes for the turkey shoot it really is. For every runaway blockbuster, there are at least 10 films like "Hollywood Ending" with a paltry take ($4.5 million so far) that seems to reflect the indomitability of said human arachnid. It's equally fun, though, to entertain the alternate explanation that no one in America cares about Woody Allen anymore, with the exception of Soon-Yi. (And I suspect she may only be feigning interest at this point.)
Not only is the competition between pictures fierce, but movies are often hard-pressed to rival the entertainment potential of real life. Ask yourself this question: Would you rather be part of a preview audience that enjoys the privilege of viewing Men in Black II a week before its July 3 opening, or a member of the jury that gets to see the Winona Ryder shoplifting tape? Not even close, is it?
Nothing is certain when the parade of summer flicks begins, which is why everyone involved appears to go a little crazy, if not stark-raving stupid. Witness the behavior of Sherwood Outdoor, a company that handles billboard advertising in New York City. Sherwood filed suit when Sony Pictures Entertainment digitally removed certain bits of real-world advertising from billboards seen in the aforementioned "Spider-Man," then replaced them with ads for some of Sony's corporate partners. Sherwood's outrage at the perceived breach of contract ignores a basic wisdom -- movies are fake. That much even 5-year-olds and Tara Reid seem able to grasp. But the billboard firm's anger also indicates a gross misplacement of priorities. If you want an ad to achieve full market penetration, you don't worry about its placement in the background of a busy, fast-paced action picture. You slap it on Cameron Diaz's ass, where the viewing public is guaranteed to see it up close over and over again.
Equally hot-headed were the litigious bigwigs at MGM/United Artists, who temporarily blocked New Line Cinema from christening its upcoming (July 26) Mike Myers comedy Austin Powers in Goldmember, which MGM/UA felt violated its copyright on one of the most lucrative properties in the James Bond franchise. (The cryogenically frozen head of Ian Fleming? No, but good guess.) New Line finally struck a deal that allowed it to keep the title in exchange for providing promotional support for the 20th Bond adventure, "Die Another Day." Myers' people made some half-hearted jokes about not having to resort to backup titles including "License to Shag," not recognizing that a lower blow like "Pierce Brosnan in Adult Incontinence" would have made MGM/UA call off the dogs in no time flat.
Studios are morons, all right, and summer is their best opportunity to lower the rest of us to their level. Often, this process begins well before a patron sets foot in the theater. A movie's poster alone can undo a year's worth of hard, thankless work on the part of America's schoolteachers. The unlearning started early this year with the April release of "High Crimes," the tag line of which taught us that "Everything you trust. Everything you know. Could be a lie." (A graver danger: Everything you read. Everything you see. Could be a sentence fragment.) Now carrying the torch of illiteracy is Jennifer Lopez's just-released domestic-violence revenge fantasy "Enough," which was originally advertised with the slogan, "Everyone has their limit." Technically, that should read, "Everyone has his or her limit," but what are the finer points of English to a woman who hides firearms in her underwear? Somebody in marketing must have gone shame-faced, though, because the film's final (and just-in-time-for-finals) posters were altered to proclaim, "Everyone has a limit" -- which is grammatically superior but sounds like a Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaign.
Don't expect to see the cinematic brow raised much higher between now and Labor Day. Folks who receive their education via home schooling -- i.e., sitting in front of the T.V. -- will find the multiplex a comforting environment indeed. Ponder The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (July 12), which promises further tips for dealing with dangerous reptiles. (Wait a minute; that's public school.) Harsher lessons yet can be gleaned from Jackass: the Movie (sometime in August), based on the controversial MTV stunt-fest that has inspired numerous incidents of copycat self-mutilation -- so many, in fact, that the movie may skip theaters and go straight to PBS as a documentary in some rural communities.
To be fair, there are some films coming between now and Labor Day that may actually be good for you, though their box-office take won't approach the sipper-cup revenue generated by "Stars Wars: Episode II -- Send in the Clones." (Did I get that right?) In the French-made Time Out (May 31), a man loses his job, declines to tell his wife and children, and instead wanders the streets while waging an inner battle with his conscience. It's the CGI that's going to make this sucker work.
The Florida Film Festival (June 7 through 16) is, as always, the best local line of resistance against moviedom's Creeping Dumb. This year's edition gets underway with a screening of John Sayles' Sunshine State, a drama about the ill effects of property development on the Floridian way of life. Embrace irony: When the DVD comes out, buy it at a mall!
Balancing intelligence with high commerce is a trick only a select few mainstream pictures may be able to pull off. The trailer for the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise sci-fi actioner Minority Report (June 21) looks promising. But the movie is bound to face resistance from moviegoers who read its title and erroneously assume that it's a dramatization of Halle Berry's Oscar-acceptance speech. Director M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable") addresses the mystery of the crop circles in Signs (Aug. 2), dispatching Mel Gibson to find the true meaning of the world's least understood series of symbols. Knowing Shyamalan's love of the twist ending, expect them to be revealed as alien code for "The next time we visit, we're bringing doughnuts."
And then there's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (June 7), which at least has its roots in literature. Many people are interested in seeing this big-screen adaptation of Rebecca Wells' best-selling novel, but honesty forces me to admit that I am not one of them. Maybe it's because I own testicles. Perhaps I'm just disappointed that Divine is not actually in the film. Either way, learning why Sandra Bullock can't get along with her mother is a task I can easily put off until autumn. Now, hand me my sipper cup and Winona Ryder tape.