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A Swingin' Summer 

Diverse slate results in head-spinning grosses

It was the summer in which a certain superhero finally made his long-awaited film debut, a certain superstar appeared in one of the costliest flops in movie history, and a certain superfreak shagged his way back to the top of the box office charts. It was also the summer in which plenty of adult dramas bucked the trend by drawing viewers tired of adolescent screen hijinks, plenty of family films cannibalized each other in an effort to corner the kiddie market, and plenty of movie geeks endlessly discussed whether the Force had indeed deserted George Lucas.

But most importantly, it was the summer that offered plenty of diverse distractions for seasoned moviegoers -- at least for awhile.

While the trend of recent years has been to frontload the summer slate with bloated blockbusters that ultimately are about as pleasurable as a baseball bat to the teeth, this time around saw a reversal in expectations, as the period began with both a swing and a prayer. The swing, of course, belonged to Spider-Man, which toppled plenty of box office records as it hurdled toward a $404 million gross and the number five position on the list of the all-time top moneymakers. The prayer, meanwhile, emanated from Hollywood execs hopeful that the webcrawler's good fortune (in both senses of the word) would extend to the rest of the season's buffet of titles.

For the most part, they needn't have worried. For a lengthy streak during the early part of summer, it seemed as if it was impossible for a high-profile release not to make money. In fact, the only person who probably had mixed feelings about the hefty box office take of his picture was George Lucas, whose Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones earned $300 million. That's a staggering figure by any measure, but because of Spider-Man's even more phenomenal success, it also means that this will be the first time that a Star Wars title will not emerge as the year's top moneymaker.

Of course, it's hard to shed any tears for Lucas, but for once, it was equally difficult to spill any for adult moviegoers in search of cerebral salve. Early summer saw major studios swimming against the tide by offering smart pictures for grown-ups (Unfaithful, Insomnia, The Sum of All Fears), while the later months found the independents picking up the reins with their own impressive adult output (The Good Girl, Sunshine State, Lovely & Amazing).

Alas, I can't say I was as attentive to the family fare this summer, as I elected to skip scores of kid flicks that looked positively dreadful (The Country Bears, Stuart Little 2, Like Mike, Hey Arnold! The Movie). Of course, given the lackluster box office receipts generated by most of these titles, I wasn't the only one giving them the heave-ho. Only Disney's Lilo & Stitch managed to break free from the kid's pack, garnering largely positive reviews and scoring close to $150 million. Frankly, its success puzzles me -- the girl protagonist is an original, but everything else is a shambles -- meaning it earns my vote as the summer's most overrated movie.

Of course, a Disney animated feature making money isn't exactly breaking news; the real story of the summer was the sleeper success of the indie feature My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a word-of-mouth hit if ever there was one. Where most films open at the top of the charts and plummet in the following weeks, Wedding, like most independent features, expanded across the country slowly, earning audience goodwill as it went along. Unlike most indies, however, this $5 million production broke away from the pack: Failing to crack the Top 10 for most of its early run, it has managed to climb all the way to number four in its 19th week of release, and its gross presently stands at roughly $70 million. So while ready-made sequels like Austin Powers In Goldmember and Men In Black II may predictably make fistfuls of dollars, it's the success of a small movie like My Big Fat Greek Wedding that deserves the real attention and accolades.

Wedding also demonstrated that one doesn't always need A-list stars to sell a project. Au contraire, being one of Hollywood's elite didn't exactly guarantee packed auditoriums this summer. While audience-friendly actors like Mel Gibson (Signs), Tom Cruise (Minority Report), Tom Hanks (Road to Perdition) and new kid on the block Vin Diesel (XXX) brought "em in, macho men like Harrison Ford (K-19: The Widowmaker), Nicolas Cage (Windtalkers) and Clint Eastwood (Blood Work) fared poorly this time around. Of course, nobody had a more disastrous summer than Eddie Murphy, whose long-delayed white elephant, the sci-fi comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash, turned out to be a financial black hole, costing its studio close to $100 million in losses.

Pluto Nash was a miscarriage on every conceivable level, but other titles failed to meet certain expectations as well. Admittedly, the summer largely petered out as it ambled toward its dog days: Many of the later big-ticket items failed to live up to expectations (more people have told me they were disappointed by Signs than any other flick this summer), while potential guilty pleasures like Eight Legged Freaks and Blue Crush also fell short of their own diminished goals. Overall, though, it wasn't a bad summer at the movies; in fact, it's safe to say that, for most filmgoers, hot popcorn and cool auditoriums didn't count for nearly as much as simply the pleasure of taking in a savory slice of genuine entertainment.

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