June 02, 2006 10:00 PM

Call this the summer of our discontent, at least at the multiplex. This year, Hollywood frontloaded its summer blockbusters and, sorry to report, most of them are mediocre at best.

With the exception of Cars, which opens on June 9, as well as Superman Returns (due June 28) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (July 7), the big summer movies have already arrived.

And what an undistinguished lot they are. The hallmark of Mission: Impossible III, Poseidon, The Da Vinci Code and X-Men: The Last Stand is a relentless mediocrity.

None of them are great. But neither are they so fabulously bad that they’re fun to watch. Instead, they are merely okay. Most have decent action scenes, lousy dialogue and lackluster characters.

Not one has a scene that surprises you, a performance that knocks your socks off (though Ian McKellen is a ripe hoot in both Da Vinci and X-Men) or a line sparkling enough to bear repeating.

With all four movies, the key question to ask upon leaving the theater is, “Would I ever want to sit through that again?” The answer: “No way.”

And don’t get me started on The Break-Up, which opened Friday. This self-described anti-romantic comedy stars real-life lovebirds Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston as a couple in the midst of a nasty split. But spending two hours watching them spat is like being stuck at a dinner party next to a bickering couple intent on drawing blood. (That said, my esteemed colleague Jason Lynch, who reviewed the movie in PEOPLE, liked it.)

So, where does this leave moviegoers? Hoping that Cars, the latest offering from Pixar cartoon guru John Lassiter (Finding Nemo), will prove as entertaining for both kids and adults as the company’s previous animated films, the two Toy Story films, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.

Brandon Routh in Superman Returns

And there’s still Superman and Pirates to look forward to. With Superman, a lot is riding on the pumped-up shoulders of Brandon Routh, the newcomer who would be our next Man of Steel. Will he turn out to have Christopher Reeve’s charm or just be a brawny bore in tights?

Pirates has to live up to and surpass the first film, which means Johnny Depp once again must swash and buckle with comic brio. And the movie marks one last chance for Orlando Bloom to prove to Hollywood, after the disappointing showings of Kingdom of Heaven and Elizabethtown, that he really is a movie star.

There are several other promising titles still due this summer. Any one of them could turn into a sleeper hit, the equivalent of last summer’s 40-Year-Old Virgin or March of the Penguins Smart bets for sleeperdom:

The Heart of the Game (opening June 9): A documentary following the fortunes of a girls’ high-school basketball team may not have the automatic appeal of a film about cute penguins, but this one will have audiences standing and cheering.

The Devil Wears Prada (June 30): Based on a bestselling novel, this comedy stars Meryl Streep as the nasty diva editor of a chi-chi fashion magazine in Manhattan and Anne Hathaway as her put-upon assistant. If it delivers the laughs the trailer promises, this comedy could be the chick flick of the summer.

Little Miss Sunshine (July 28): A comedy about a dysfunctional family on a road trip, Sunshine was the big hit at the Sundance Film Festival last winter. It’s hilarious and smart and has a glorious surprise near the end. Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette star.

Talladega Nights: Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Aug. 4): When Will Ferrell’s good, he’s very very good (Elf), and when he’s bad it’s Bewitched. Here’s hoping this comedy about a NASCAR driver will reach the winner’s circle.

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