Well before it arrived in theaters this month, Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, a war-movie parody that puts the whole industry in its satirical gun sights, was a provocative project: Curious filmgoers were bewildered by its casting of Robert Downey Jr. in blackface as a white actor who undergoes "repigmentation" to play a black man, and advocacy groups protested its nonchalant use of the epithet "retard." When the film opened, even favorable reviews criticized its depictions of severed body parts and excretory functions as vulgar, puerile and needlessly gross.
For Hollywood, this accumulation of offenses could be called progress.
Taken on its own, Tropic Thunder can seem a pinnacle of tastelessness: an attempt to titillate its audience (of teenage boys, and men who still think like them) by violating every boundary imaginable. Not that it's easy to measure one movie's shock-and-ick factor against another's, but if this film is a peak of sorts, it's fair to ask: How did cinema get here?
Practice, it turns out. Tropic Thunder was built on a mountain of increasingly irreverent R-rated cinema that takes in 30 years' worth of broken taboos and box-office records.
Theory of devolution
For all the social conventions transgressed in the 1960s and '70s — in the standup routines of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, for example — the granddaddies of the gross-out genre didn't arrive in movie theaters until the late '70s. In 1977, the year of Star Wars and Annie Hall, The Kentucky Fried Movie was a cult hit with its obscene send-ups of news broadcasts, nonexistent exploitation movies (Catholic High School Girls in Trouble) and advertisements for fake charities like the United Appeal for the Dead.
"In the department of offensive and tasteless, there was nothing like it," said the filmmaker David Zucker, who wrote Kentucky Fried Movie with Jerry Zucker, his brother, and Jim Abrahams. "We're in the business of getting people out of their houses, and you have to do something that people can't see on TV." Made for about $700,000 and directed by John Landis, the movie earned nearly $20-million worldwide in its original release.
The next year, the college-frat comedy Animal House fully synthesized the sophomoric sensibility of National Lampoon magazine with the star power of TV's Saturday Night Live. Though the movie's toga parties (and John Belushi's vivid impression of a zit) might seem tame by today's standards, the film, also directed by Landis, was a runaway hit, opening at No. 1 in July 1978 and taking in more than $140-million in its original release.
"It made the kind of bitter, borderline humor that 14-year-old boys enjoy in private acceptable to display to a large audience," said Marty Kaplan, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and a former film executive at Disney.
Animal House inspired a slew of naughtier, sex-obsessed imitators, both hits (Porky's in 1982; Revenge of the Nerds in 1984) and misses (anyone remember the 1984 cheerleader-camp comedy Gimme an F?). Yet the 1980s and early '90s were considered a fallow period for the R-rated raunch-fest: Movie studios lost interest as they focused on big-budget action films.
Balancing the budget
"Hollywood is above all a commercial enterprise," Kaplan said. "If it doesn't think that there's a market for being lewd and risque and outrageous, they certainly won't do it for the sake of art."
True for the most part, but a single movie released in 1998 chipped away at that institutional reluctance. There's Something About Mary, directed by the brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, combined shocking visual gags (semen used as hair gel; the protagonist's genitals caught in the zipper of his pants) with the otherwise charming story of a hapless Romeo (played by Stiller) seeking his lost high school sweetheart.
"They did the grossest stuff," Zucker said, "yet the movie was almost sophisticated. It seems to have had a purpose higher than just doing gross-out jokes." On a budget of $23-million, Mary took in more than $176-million at the box office.
The film — and profane progeny, from 1999's American Pie to last year's Superbad — have proved an important counterbalance to the mega-budget tent-pole movies dominating studio schedules. Getting a $150-million movie to succeed "is akin to having 12 Bulgarian jugglers land on 12 Bulgarian jugglers," said Peter Guber, the chief executive of Mandalay Entertainment Group and the former head of Columbia and Sony Pictures. "The execution has to be perfect."
Raunchy comedies, on the other hand, cost far less to produce. A hit like this year's pot comedy Pineapple Express, Guber said, "cost $27-million. That was the catering budget for Batman."
Though their R ratings would seem to brand these films adult entertainment, it is a poorly kept secret that the promise of skin and salacious jokes is a beacon to young filmgoers. "History shows that no one is more inventive about getting into a movie than a male under 18," Kaplan said.
Most of all, each new movie offers the promise that it will exceed the outrageousness of its predecessors — a challenge filmmakers are happy to rise (or sink) to. Guber pointed to a forthcoming comedy written and directed by Kevin Smith, called Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which recently had its NC-17 rating reduced to an R. Judging from the title, Guber said: "If that's not NC-17, it'll be pretty close to it. They're certainly not making Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."