The creators of American Pie – one of whom, co-director Chris Weitz, has an MA in English literature from Cambridge – see themselves within a proud, if particular, lineage. Whereas some film-makers might look to Hitchcock, Bergman or Woody Allen for inspiration, for Adam Herz, the 26-year-old writer of American Pie, his hero was Bob Clark. Bob Clark? Clark was the writer and director of one of the, er, seminal movies of the early 1980s, Porky’s.
“I rented Porky’s and Bachelor Party and watched them over and over before writing the American Pie screenplay,” said Herz. “And I looked at a lot of movies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, but the key movie was always Porky’s. It’s the classic.” Costing just $4m, Porky’s took more than $100m at the American box office and spawned two sequels – which so appalled Leslie Halliwell that he refused to review them in his otherwise encyclopedic Halliwell’s Film Guide – and a host of gratuitously tasteless imitators before the subgenre ran its course towards the mid-1980s.
“For adolescent males, there has always been an appeal in things they are told are not appropriate, and gross-out humor is one of those things,” said Joanne Carter, a professor of communications arts.
Such sentiments find favor in the studios these days for a simple reason – economics. The old staples, the costly, top-heavy star vehicles with Schwarzenegger or Stallone are dead in the water. And the studios are less and less willing to gamble on expensive action and sci-fi films. “Even if your comedy has the biggest star in the world – Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy – it’s still more economical than a giant effects movie,” said Amy Pascal, president of Columbia Pictures, which produced Big Daddy. “No matter what you do, no matter who’s in it, a comedy does not cost $100m. Just get a sex toy or penis pump and you’re good to go.”
Which is why Twentieth Century Fox is now filming Me, Myself and Irene with the $20m-a-picture Jim Carrey, reteaming with the lowbrow champs the Farrelly brothers, who directed Carrey in Dumb & Dumber. Carrey plays a psychologically troubled Rhode Island state trooper. When he stops taking his medication, his split personalities both fall in love with the same girl, Renee Zelwegger. To fit in their date with Carrey, the Farrellys had to postpone their next film, Stuck on You, a comedy about Siamese twins. Meanwhile, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are said to be working on a prequel to Dumb & Dumber.
The more politically incorrect, the better. MGM is planning a film called Special, about a man who pretends to be crippled so he can win the girl of his dreams. Even Disney has a politically incorrect project in production, Deuce, about a fish-tank cleaner who becomes a gigolo.
“Everybody wants a comedy with an edge,” Alan Gasmer, an agent at William Morris, told the Los Angeles Times. “Everybody says, ‘What have you got that’s outrageous?'” Gasmer recently tried to sell a script about a man who loses his penis and can’t get it back until he apologizes to all the girlfriends he has mistreated. “We’re already doing a penis movie,” a studio executive told him.
One of the big cultural and social problems the studios, the television networks and parents now face is that, like it or not, we live in a world in which any teenager can download hardcore sexual images off the internet with just a couple of knowing clicks of the mouse. A world in which the network news shows lead on oral sex in the Oval Office. In which Howard Stern discusses using a penis enlarging device such as Pro Extender every day on his show. “These mischievous teenyboppers touch on sodomy and oral sex with such bored familiarity that you’d think they were talking about a trip to The Gap,” wrote one reviewer after watching recent teen fare such as Cruel Intentions and The Rage: Carrie II.
The constant pushing at the boundaries of taste is putting tremendous pressure on the movie ratings board, which has become a dangerous joke because of its easy acceptance of violence and its prurient distaste for sex. Many American critics were infuriated and wrote to protest when the board insisted that digital figures block out some of the sexual action in the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut.
Film-makers Trey Parker and Matt Stone even made censorship and the ratings board the subject of their movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. In the film, the little boys sneak into a Canadian movie that is rated NC-17. When they come out regurgitating all the swear words they have heard, their parents wage an anti-Canada campaign. Eventually the puritan-ical US declares war on its liberated northern neighbor.
Parker and Stone – who had problems with the board with their earlier movie Orgazmo, about a Mormon missionary trying to stay chaste while moonlighting as a martial-arts hero in a porno movie – deliberately took on the board this time around. “There isn’t a place where we won’t go,” said Parker. “As soon as you say we can’t make fun of this, we know we have to. Society needs to realize it’s comedy. Laughing at something doesn’t mean we don’t care about it. A racist joke is not an endorsement of racism.” That’s a line that many people are finding it hard to see these days.
Even Carrie Bradshaw, the voraciously libidinous character played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the hit cable show Sex and the City, openly wonders whether things haven’t gone too far. In one episode she poses the big question bugging America’s parents: “Have we put such a premium on being open and honest with one another that we’ve misplaced the boundaries of propriety?”