Hollywood's Slide Into the Sewer

The good news: The summer of 2002 has been a pleasing cornucopia for family movies. Nearly every weekend, parents have a new movie their kids are pressuring them to see. Animated creativity bloomed with Disney's "Lilo and Stitch" and Dreamworks' "Spirit." TV cartoons like "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Hey Arnold!" turned out cinematic spinoffs - although they were dragged down by puzzling PG ratings and limited screening times throughout their short term at the cineplex. Even in late summer, kids can still choose between family-pleasing sequels to "Spy Kids" and "Stuart Little."

The bad news: Families-or to be more precise, children-are flooding to movies packaged as family fare but which are anything but that. "Event movies are pulling in the family audience along with all audiences," says Marc Schmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures. And "event movie" is that explosive new offering that becomes the talk of the town, the magnetic "must see" cultural experience.

The prime example is Mike Myers' latest Austin Powers installment, "Goldmember." From its modest origins as a "Saturday Night Live" spinoff with little box office brio, the second sequel unfurls like a big fat franchise, filled with Hollywood's biggest names in cameo roles. It all started as a funny concept: a James Bond spoof with a slice of time travel, a hopelessly '60s British swinger with awful teeth lost in the more cautious, "safe sex" 1990s.

Along the way, "Austin Powers" has become a pop-culture standard, a colorful, omnipresent phenomenon. Constant advertising tie-ins and relentless reruns of the first two films prodded whole families through the cinema doors. Try getting through a half-hour with teens without the Austin lingo breaking out - "shagadelic," "oh, behave," "yeah, baby," and even "do I make you randy?"

We shouldn't discount how funny and versatile and improvisational Mike Myers has been in some of these movie scenes. He and they can be hilariously good.

But along the way, the cultural pull of the series has changed directions. The pathetic swinger who was once lost in time is now the confident role model of cool, moving to a place where satire ends and stylishness begins. Whole families, or parents giving the nod of approval to children, have propelled "Goldmember" to new box office records for a comedy presumably because of the relatively innocent PG-13 rating the movie has garnered. The problem is that this film is not relatively innocent for this age group.

In Variety, columnist Peter Bart notes that "movies steeped in toilet jokes and sexual innuendo are earning PG-13 ratings rather than the more restrictive ratings they might have received a few years ago." In a real sense, it has become false advertising and families are falling for it. Studios know that theaters are working somewhat harder to keep children out of R-rated films because the R rating now has a scarlet letter connotation. As film critic Michael Medved has documented time and again, the G and PG rated movies consistently trounce their R rated competitors at the box office.

It would appear that Hollywood finally got the message. Indeed, only a third of new releases this year have received an R rating, compared with as high as 67 percent in recent years. But perception is not reality. Rather than downgrade the mature content of its films, Hollywood instead has lowered its ratings standards.

The second Powers film was lewder and cruder than the first, and the third installment tunnels even lower into the genitals-and-intestines gags. Even the newly creative concepts - like English subtitles that get half-lost in white walls or bookcases - can only stoop to set up juvenile jokes about "eating shitake mushrooms" and having a "huge rod." The ratings board is taking the position that if the film features an absence of violence and the lack of sex behind all the sex talk, it is acceptable for young teens, no matter how raunchy the toilet humor might be.

In the final analysis, the movie studios must see the ugliness in films that aspire to hook children not with quality but with messages aimed at 13-year-old boys who can't get enough of sexual and excretory humor. Hollywood will defend itself saying it imposes the hip, lewd, and crude because the market demands it, and box office receipts prove it. There is truth to this position, but there is also the truth that Hollywood is happily aiding and abetting the cultural slide into the sewer.

These Austin Powers movies do have their brilliant, uproariously funny moments. But given the rest of what's there, they are moments to be enjoyed by adults not children.