- - Sunday, February 3, 2013

Back in the Oscar season of 2007, Eddie Murphy should have been riding a career high as the front-running contender to win the best supporting actor award for “Dreamgirls” on his first-ever nomination. Instead, he lost the award, but most pundits thought that had nothing to do with his acting, nor his mercurial personality.

No, it was widely thought he lost because he had another movie in theaters after “Dreamgirls” called “Norbit,” in which he played the dual roles of a hopelessly nerdy man and (donning a horrifically tasteless fat suit) a grotesquely obese woman. Even as Mr. Murphy was angling for the most coveted award in Hollywood, he was embarrassing himself in a movie that was despised by critics and viewers alike, scoring a dismal 3.7 rating (out of 10) from viewers on IMDB.com. (Inexplicably, “Norbit” was a $90 million box-office hit.) Many thought that he lost for “Dreamgirls” because Hollywood just couldn’t be seen rewarding the guy at the same time his subsequent poor taste was on full display in theaters.

Those watching the Oscar race this season can only wonder if history will repeat itself Feb. 24, when Hugh Jackman will be up for best actor for “Les Miserables” and Naomi Watts competes for best actress honors for “The Impossible.” Both of these A-list talents, who normally are seen in impeccably produced and critically acclaimed fare, have roles in last week’s jaw-droppingly tasteless bomb “Movie 43,” which the king of critics Roger Ebert called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of awful.”

In Mr. Jackman’s segment of this gross-out “comedy” compilation film the suave actor plays a handsome guy on a blind date — a guy who just happens to have a giant scrotum hanging from his chin. The scrotum repeatedly dips into his food and drinks, shrinks into his throat when he gets cold and winds up rubbing against the face of his date (inexplicably played by Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet) when friends encourage them to pose for a picture together.

Miss Watts, meanwhile, plays a mom who is home-schooling her teenage son yet wants him to experience all the good and bad situations that teenage life has to offer. This winds up with her pretending to be a girl giving him his first romantic kiss, and saying things like “we should go all the way,” in an incredibly creepy attempt at humor in a situation that borders on incest (granted, she is pretending).

The rest of the film’s scenarios — which are loosely connected by a running gag featuring Dennis Quaid as a crazy man trying to force a movie producer (Greg Kinnear) into funding a film filled with these scenes — are even more shocking and impossible to describe in a family newspaper. A parade of top stars, including Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Anna Faris, Josh Duhamel, Emma Stone and Oscar-winner Halle Berry, take turns humiliating themselves and each other in the film’s 15 shorts, which are directed by some top comedy directors, including Peter Farrelly, Hollywood’s king of gross-out comedy (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “Hall Pass”).

The mind reels trying to understand why so many top Hollywood talents agreed to do this movie. Mr. Farrelly is most at fault for its creation, as he and producing partner Charles B. Wessler spent well over a decade trying to convince a studio to fund this dreck and spread the actual shooting out over a four-year period so they could catch all the stars they wanted during small breaks in their film schedules.

Displaying such passion for such a deeply disturbed project offers a window into the minds of Hollywood elites and their off-kilter and utterly out-of-touch sense of what is funny or even appropriate to offer a paying public. As America grows ever more divided between red states and blue states and much of Hollywood continues to mock the deep-red middle of the U.S. as “flyover country,” films like “Movie 43” will only make average moviegoers hold Hollywood in ever-growing contempt.

“Movie 43” made only $5 million on its opening weekend, despite having 20 name actors involved in its sordid segments. Its abject failure at the box office is further confirmation, as if more was needed, that normal, hard-working Americans don’t want to be insulted and offended when they plunk down their hard-earned cash for a movie on a Friday or Saturday night.

I was raised in Little Rock, Ark., and still visit my family there and across the South regularly. Every time I go to see my sister’s family in Pelham, Ala., I’m astonished by the packed houses for G through PG-13 fare at the first-run and, especially, second-run theaters there.

People still want to see movies, to be lost in the transcendence of imaginative and entertaining artistic visions, and to laugh at movies that are genuinely funny rather than stomach-turning. If Hollywood’s top talents want to connect with those audiences, rather than slide ever deeper into irrelevance, they could start by shooting for the stars when doing a dream project together, rather than choosing to swim in the gutter.

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