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  BELIEVE THE HYPE? WEDDING CRASHERS.  
   
   
  Movie studios promote the hell out of their product through TV ads, trailers, billboards, press interviews and tie-in campaigns with companies like McDonald's or SBC. Then, after an obscene amount of money and creative energy has been spent to build awareness over  
 

a series of months, the marketing department has to wait and pray for something they have no control over and ultimately means more than anything else: good word-of-mouth.

It's a cliché -- but true nonetheless -- to say that no amount of studio conscious-raising will be enough to offset a film that's incontrovertibly crappy. Maybe the pre-release hype will bring in enough fools opening weekend, but soon the bad buzz will kill off repeat

       
 

customers and the undecided. That truism has been one of the many, many explanations for this year's box office slump: Suddenly, the litany of horrible movies has become too much for consumers and, as a result, they're staying away in droves.

As a rare exception, Wedding Crashers isn't just a film that's doing well in this brutal summer season -- it's thriving, building momentum as it goes. Granted, like any major release, it's made less money with each subsequent week. But in this industry, success is measured by how small your weekly decrease is and how high your theater-per-screen average is. And on these two fronts, Wedding Crashers has been a huge win for everyone involved, not to mention an opportunity for every bitter industry columnist to use the movie as his case study to explain what's wrong with the rest of the business.

Films make $100 million all the time, but you don't often hear people talking as excitedly as they do about Wedding Crashers. Unlike, say, Fantastic Four, which appeals to its large core audience and doesn't darken anyone else's door, this Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn comedy seems to be spreading. Or maybe it's just validating an ever-growing crowd that recognizes themselves up there on the screen. What was hinted at in Old School and Dodgeball is now here to stay: Say hello to New Dude Cinema.

Since American Pie and There's Something about Mary, recent American comedy has taken a page from its late-'70s/early-'80s muses: Animal House, Bill Murray, hot naked chicks. Usually, the guys in those movies were wiseasses who refused to conform to society -- they rejected the rules of college, the military, the golf course. These movies had a severe juvenile streak, lots of nudity and swearing, and with their loosey-goosey structure, they often seemed like the filmmakers were making them up as they went along, which only added to the anarchic feel.

After the period's peak -- maybe with Ghostbusters, which treated the horror and sci-fi genres as disrespectfully as Animal House used to treat Dean Wormer -- studio comedies never again captured that same anti-authority streak. (The Hollywood '80s weren't about subversion, after all.) Wanting to reach the largest demographic possible, the R-rated comedy withered away and died, as studios instead focused on PG romances and family laughers. Not until the end of the century when Cameron Diaz's Mary found something odd in her hair did directors start risking the risqué again.

This reemergence of boobs and bodily functions also ushered in a new breed of dudes who populated these movies. John Belushi might have been their god, but no longer were our protagonists outsider bums. Now, they hold down jobs, make a decent amount of money, and confront the realities of adult relationships -- some of them were even married. (Yeah, Chevy Chase was married in the Vacation films, but he was more of a precursor to Homer Simpson than a bona fide dude.) The New Dude company of actors, dubbed the "frat pack," includes Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and the stars of Wedding Crashers. Unlike the dude comedies of a generation ago, these new films' heroes aren't fighting the system -- they're fighting maturity. You see this phenomenon everywhere. Whether it's Esquire or Adult Swim or Xbox, the modern man is battling to stay in a perpetual adolescence where you never have to grow up, but you get to have tons of cool gadgets and expensive material possessions anyway. Remember how you always told yourself that those fraternity blockheads would be in big trouble once they entered the real world? Well, guess what happened? There's a whole industry devoted to them now.

As a very unlikely fraternity man myself, I was lucky enough to enjoy the male bonding without too much of the asshole residue -- but I could always glimpse that down the row at the other houses, if need be. Films like Old School don't cause me to look back fondly. All they do is perpetuate the sort of aging horndog shtick that nobody enjoys encountering at a party or a club. Anchorman was fair, and I boycotted Dodgeball and Starsky & Hutch out of principle. (What principle? The principle that Ben Stiller has just gotten too damn self-satisfied -- that's what principle.)

Even though Dodgeball got over the magic $100-million hurdle, Wedding Crashers is the first of the New Dude Cinema to actually interest anyone outside of the core audience. It's a damn date movie, for crying out loud. But this is also the first of its genre to do more than go through the motions of a three-act story -- it has emotional arcs and real consequences. What's better, it hasn't lost any of the usual raucous dude-comedy energy to make that happen.

Walking, talking specimens of the overgrown frat boy species, Vaughn's Jeremy and Wilson's John are successful divorce negotiators by day and wedding crashers by weekend. Not interested in serious commitments, they like arriving as strangers to these events, becoming the life of the party and nailing single chicks whose hormones are spiking and whose inhibitions are low because they're at a wedding. (You expect the screenwriting credits to include, "inspired by the article from Maxim.") Instead of living off its high concept, for once a New Dude film has some follow-through. And instead of reveling in the immaturity -- flattering its audience's Peter-Pan dreams -- Wedding Crashers is a frank, funny look at the time in every (thirtysomething) boy's life when he has to stop lying about his real name and his occupation when he meets a pretty girl.

Before the film's release, the big industry discussion was about its R rating -- in our heavily conservative times, would the Heartland shy away? But unlike a dozen "racy" PG-13 comedies of recent years which you just knew would make a bundle on DVD when they unveil the "unrated" (nudity!!) version, Wedding Crashers feels adult in the right ways. Ironically, one of the year's few box office surprises has been a sex comedy that caters to moviegoers other than the usual studio-desirable teenagers. Wedding Crashers has its cheap laughs, but for the most part the swearing and the sex feels more matter-of-fact rather than "outrageous" or "wacky;" there's a refreshing commonplace quality to it that only makes the humor funnier, more knowing. Wedding Crashers is a movie about growing up, and it's aimed at people who are already there -- the movie assumes that they're past the point of giggling at nipples or finding vomit hysterical. (Though I do worry if the cursing grandma was an executive's idea of edgy comedy.)

Up to this point, the New Dude comedies had been funny enough but pretty forgettable -- you could marginalize them. Wedding Crashers is too smart and clever -- too wise about its lunkhead leads -- to dismiss. It shares a sweetness with the guy classic Swingers in that they both understand male bonding rituals while recognizing that the next stage of emotional development is just around the corner. Wedding Crashers is only the second big romantic comedy hit of the year, but unlike Hitch, which was enjoyable if slight, this new film has an unpredictable energy -- it sports a roguish strut equal to its protagonists.

Most obviously, it's a lot of fun, a word almost as critical to a film's chances as word-of-mouth -- and just as difficult a component to manufacture. That's why I don't think there's any real "lesson" for the industry to learn from the success of Wedding Crashers. It's a tiny little marvel of grown-up comedy all its own, and if they try to replicate it, they'll fail. That's where word-of-mouth comes in: People are so tickled that it exists -- they had given up hope, but now here it is -- that they just have to tell their friends. It's like in dating -- women hear all the time from their man, "Baby, I've changed. Really, I have. If you give me one more chance, things'll be different." With Wedding Crashers, you should take him at his word. An adolescent genre is ready for its rite of passage -- and is getting deservedly rewarded for its trouble.

 

Believe the Hype Rating: 7 out of 10

 

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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.