`Thanks, we're already doing a penis movie'

NOT SO long ago, Hollywood's recipe for a summer blockbuster movie was simple but effective: action, adventure, asteroids, lots of loud explosions, and lashings of gratuitous violence. The kids loved it, and the formula was guaranteed to make mega-bucks at the box office.

That, however, was before two deranged high-school students opened fire on their classmates in Littleton, Colorado, in April. That triggered a profound crisis in the US's cultural consciousness, prompting everyone to blame the entertainment industry every bit as much as gun manufacturers for purveying and encouraging violence. The big studios had to come up with another trick to lure teenagers into the multiplex, and fast.

It would be comforting to think that they aimed a little higher on the intelligence scale than the puerile spectacles of Godzilla or Armageddon - but no. Their solution? Think outrageous. Think disgusting. Think vomit, urine, diarrhoea, flatulence, semen - any bodily excretion, in fact, just as long as it would be deemed repellent when mixed into a good old-fashioned milkshake.

Think, in other words, no-holds-barred gross-out comedy. Such films already existed, of course, from the high trash of John Waters to the Police Academy series, but never have they entered the mainstream in quite such shameless fashion.

The trend began last year, with the Farrelly brothers' surprise hit There's Something About Mary, a disarmingly sweet romantic comedy shot through with grotesque barbs of supreme political incorrectness, which made the kind of money usually associated with superheroes and space operas.

Fast-forward to this summer, and that lone break-out hit has turned into a veritable epidemic. First out of the starting blocks was Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me, the follow-up to Mike Myers's James Bond spoof replete with dick jokes, fart jokes and excrement jokes. Then came South Park, the movie version of the foul-mouthed television cartoon; Big Daddy, the latest vehicle for the US's favourite dunderhead comic, Adam Sandler; and now, last week's box-office chart-topper, American Pie.

Pie starts off from a well-worn high-school movie premise - four boys who vow they will lose their virginity by prom night - then laces it with an endless parade of caught-in-the-act masturbating jokes and, at its lowest comic point, a joke about a glass of beer with - you guessed it - semen in it.

This was not the kind of material that Congressional Republicans, with their notions of family values and wholesome entertainment, had in mind when they begged Hollywood to go easy on the shoot'em-up brand of summer movie. From the studios' point of view, though, it makes glorious business sense: no big special effects to pay for, no big star salaries, and a spectacular success rate. American Pie cost Universal Studios just $11m (pounds 7m) and is projected to make at least $100m in the US alone.

There is much more of the same in the pipeline. A trailer for Mystery Men, a forthcoming spoof superhero film, shows blood-stained cotton wool shooting out of the nostril of Ben Stiller at high speed. Other titles include one called Richard and another called Dick. One Hollywood script agent recently offered round a story about a man who loses his penis. It was turned down by a studio executive who said, "We're already doing a penis movie."

The gross-out trend hardly indicates any desire by Hollywood to curb its excesses. This is just excess of a different kind: the frenetic desire of every studio to have its own replica of the success of Something About Mary. And it is not as though the violence and horror have gone away; most of this summer's releases were completed before the Littleton massacre, and the bloodier items have simply been held back.

At their most crassly commercial, both the violent and the gross-out genres ultimately underline the same thing: the paucity of imagination in Hollywood. "It's the triumph of the salesman," said the comedian Harry Shearer. "It's wrong to say our culture is being run by 12-year- old boys ... even 12-year-old boys have broader tastes than the people who pander to them these days."

GROSSEST MOMENTS

(CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT)

AMERICAN PIE

The film that takes the cake, so to speak, with jokes about semen, vomit, masturbation, premature ejaculation, and much more. One character is told that having sex is like putting your manhood in a hot apple pie, so he tests out the comparison in an unorthodox culinary manoeuvre on the kitchen table. What would Delia Smith think?

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY

Notorious for its extended genitals-caught-in-zipper joke, but also for a scene in which Cameron Diaz mistakes a misdirected gob of semen for hair gel and runs it through her hair in innocent preparation for a date.

AUSTIN POWERS 2: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME

The follow-up to Mike Myers' hit James Bond spoof includes a scene in which a copious stool sample is placed next to a coffee pot. The eponymous hero picks the wrong jug, of course, and ends up smiling unawares with a large brown stain across his upper lip.

BIG DADDY

Adam Sandler repeats the irredeemable knucklehead role he developed in The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy, this time taking a young boy under his wing and teaching him a thing or two about life, like how to urinate against the walls of fancy restaurants.

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