When Hollywood Knows Its Audience (and Doesn't Like It)

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

If gals are fools for diamonds, princes and marrying up, and guys are suckers for sports, burping and crude talk, Hollywood has the movies for both -- or thinks it does.

The two films couldn't be more obviously targeted: "The Other Boleyn Girl" brings Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman together as sisters of the Tudor era, all puffy sleeves and funny headdresses, and vying for the royal hand of Henry VIII. And "Semi-Pro" is a basketball comedy starring Will Ferrell as the washed-up owner of a 1970s team of bush-league -- not to mention bush-haired -- losers. And yes, there's a lot of locker-room talk.

While some observers have superficially dismissed last weekend's Oscarfest for showcasing high-quality, depressing movies that no one went to see, these latest releases hardly make the case for the implied alternative: popular movies that go easy on the brain and rock the guilty pleasure center.

Collectively blanketing more than 4,000 screens across the country this weekend, "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "Semi-Pro" are just two of the hundreds of movies to be released this year that are designed purely to trigger a sale. They contain no profound messages, no artistic purpose, but just enough emotional high points to make us believe we've had a meaningful experience for 20 bucks -- and yes, we are counting the soda and popcorn.

Whether we are sophisticated or not, we respond for our own mystical reasons. And we find ourselves sliding a couple of Alexander Hamiltons toward the box-office window and -- lo and behold! -- "Alvin and the Chipmunks" makes $213 million domestic, while Oscar's Best Picture winner, "No Country for Old Men," barely clears $65 million.

So which of this weekend's down-market invitations should we go for? Well, neither. But if this were a contest, "Boleyn Girl" would win by a teeny, royal nose. Although it does to history what that executioner did to Anne B.'s neck, it starts out with soap-opera appeal, visually ennobled by the costumes and royal lifestyles. Like the Philippa Gregory "historical" novel it's based on, it's essentially a bodice-ripper with Johansson as Mary Boleyn, the "other" of the title, and Portman as her more famous sister, who amounts to Iago in a dress.

About two-thirds seductress and one-third Satan seed, this Anne stops at nothing to secure that snug spot in His Majesty's four-poster bed. Her modus operandi includes sib-on-sib back-stabbing, treachery and even -- horrors! -- attempted incest with brother George Boleyn (Jim Sturgess). All this to produce a male heir for Henry (played with buff-bodied diffidence by Eric Bana). Never was social climbing this ruthless and Machiavellian.

But while Peter Morgan's script draws us into the world of women and the ugly measures they have to take to achieve status in a patriarchal world, it's also a parade of the worst cliches man ever bestowed on the other sex -- the suffering martyr-mother (Kristin Scott Thomas as the Boleyn matriarch), the scheming trollop (Portman) and the saintly sucker (Johansson).

Its message here is unintentionally self-hating: Men may be pigs, it tells us, but women -- especially those women-- deserve everything they get. Send 'em all to the Tower! And long before the movie ends, we're left feeling vaguely unclean for having participated in all this.

The formula in "Semi-Pro" is La-Z-Boy simple: As the player-coach and owner of the Flint Michigan Tropics, a team in the American Basketball Association, Jackie Moon (Ferrell) is forced to prove his team is good enough to join the newly unified NBA.

The movie is full of the tackiness, inelegance and intentional lack of sophistication that traditionally govern men at their most relaxed and unguarded. But it fails to imbue the locker-room world with the edge that would turn this careless toss of a premise into a three-pointer. And it blows the chance to showcase Ferrell doing what he does best.

What guys appreciate about Ferrell -- if they put down their beers and think about it -- is the way he brings a bird-just-born innocence to male stereotypes. He is a perpetual child forever trying to come to grips with a complex world. And he makes it okay, funny and lovable to be a dude, no matter what character he's playing -- overgrown college boy in "Old School," mustachioed sexist in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," or swaggering goofball in "Blades of Glory."

But in "Semi-Pro," he's just a bushy-haired loser, given to jarring profanity. This isn't our Will Ferrell, and the collection of oddballers around him are even more clueless about comedy than they are shooting hoops. Co-stars Andr¿ Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Maura Tierney and David Koechner -- all talented -- seem amazingly zombielike here, malfunctioning holograms of their former selves.

Hey, there's nothing wrong with movies that address without apology some of the chestnuts and traditions that allow us to revel in our sexual identity. But we can do it, and have done it, in a smart way. Among last year's top 100 box-office hits, "Transformers" was an astute and entertaining boys-love-their-toys experience. And even though "The Heartbreak Kid" was a decidedly inferior remake of its 1972 predecessor, it had its hilariously inspired comic moments. For the gals, there was the romantically stirring "Dan in Real Life" and "Music and Lyrics," both of which were witty, touching and savvy enough to reach their audiences so they didn't feel embarrassed when they stepped back into the light.

Unfortunately, "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "Semi-Pro" fail, even at this easy target game. And here's the real depressing part: They make you yearn for a documentary about Iraq or the health-care system.

The Other Boleyn Girl (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual situations and off-camera gore.

Semi-Pro (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for crude humor and profanity.

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