LosAngeles Timex, May 28, 2006

By James Verini

NOTE to Hollywood studio publicity departments: The movie premiere party is an ailing beast. Please do something. We know those of you not comparing wax jobs in Cannes are busy handing out questionnaires to Janie in Peoria, but back here in L.A., things are grim.

The premiere party used to hold great sway in Los Angeles nightlife. In a town whose occupation is looking good, it was a hallowed kind of faux-civic event — celebrities showing up to watch themselves on-screen and then repairing to a party to discuss themselves. The premiere was a win-win for Janie in Peoria and Hollywood both. Janie got her fix of Hollywood meta-existence, sure that all anyone in L.A. did every night was go to premieres, and Hollywood got Janie.

Things have changed. With box office receipts often interesting the public more than the movies generating them (or not), when Janie can’t go to the dentist without seeing some actor or another grasping a gold statuette or learning what Jennifer Aniston picked up at Ralphs last week, the premiere has lost its mystique for poor Janie and, more tragically, for us here in L.A.

“So many stars and filmmakers feel their premieres are obligatory now,” said one prominent Hollywood event planner who has put together many premiere parties. “They’re not excited about it. Often there are multiple events for a single movie. There are so many of them, they’re not special anymore.”

The most anticipated Hollywood premiere of the summer, “The Da Vinci Code,” took place not in L.A. but in Cannes. Ditto for “X-Men: The Last Stand.” “M:i:III” premiered in New York. The premieres that still take place here have been boiled down to their essentials: a chance to eat shrimp and drink free vodka near, say, Vince Vaughn, and the opportunity to provide yet another manicured moment for the tabloid media.

Not that either of these goals is inconsiderable. The media is an invaluable — invaluable! — institution, and anyone who tells you getting tight near Vince Vaughn wouldn’t top their list of fun evenings is simply lying.

But despite soaring marketing budgets, there is an uninspired, by-the-numbers feel to most premiere parties these days. Executives’ lack of imagination where their product is concerned notwithstanding, one would hope that at least where the potential for dissolution and debauchery are at stake, some fresh ideas might pop up. Not so.

Take the “Jarhead” premiere last fall at the Palladium. Big money, big stars, great preview. The premiere party should have been a romp. Bullet casings littering the floor, bartenders in gas masks, moonshine served in canteens — this would have been the way to go, right? Instead we got some weird, red mood lighting and pita bread. Compare this with the premiere party, just 10 years ago, for the first “Mission Impossible” film. There was a helio-pad dance floor and digital camera kiosks and U2 showed up. It was a blast.

Monday night brought the premiere of “The Break-Up” and the chance to eat shrimp and get tight near Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston (nice foreshadowing, eh?). The party did not take place at Ralphs, sadly — now that would be an inspired venue — but rather in Westwood. Which, come to think of it, is not far off in spirit.

“The Break-Up” has its own built-in marketing mechanism in Vaughn and Aniston’s relationship, such as it exists. But amid the sordid, Burton-Taylor-ish details of Brangelina and Tomkat, Anistaughn has a quaint, Tracy-Hepburn quality to it. That may be nice for the couple, but where premiere parties are concerned, the more sordid the accompanying tabloid story the better.

Disappointingly, this was an equivalently quaint affair. Indeed, it might have been in Peoria. The only tumult belonged to the requisite caterwauling teenagers and autograph hounds lined up outside the Mann Village Theatre, a pretty Deco theater amid pretty, small-town-feeling Westwood. They yelled when Aniston walked down the red carpet. They yelled when Vaughn walked down the red carpet. They yelled when Jon Favreau walked down the red carpet.

Inside, the movie started 20 minutes late (as punctual as it gets at a premiere) and the crowd of several hundred studio functionaries, their dates, screenwriters’ family members and key grips — actual celebrities are hard to find at premieres — clapped and laughed dutifully from the opening credits to the last scene.

At the restaurant, the shrimp was plentiful and the vodka was, as promised, free. There were also trays full of crispy things topped with ahi tuna, or “aha tuna” as one confused server kept calling it, and chicken in various multiethnic forms.

Premiere parties are often segmented like lopsided weddings in which one spouse has married up, with the A-list at their own tables guarded by publicists and, occasionally, security guards, and the distant cousins and charity invitees out on the periphery. The best thing to be said for “The Break-Up” party was that it was egalitarian, with the known and the obscure alike smushed up against one another, competing for air and food. Vaughn stood on the restaurant’s patio much of the time, graciously chatting with whoever approached him. Meanwhile, Aniston, who’d endured the bulk of screaming affection at the theater, was inside, beset by short men in suits.

Before long, the party was over.

But oh you publicity departments, what could have been! Who cares if “The Break-Up” is a relatively small release? Why not forget the focus groups and interoffice memos and get original?

Just imagine the possibilities. The film takes place in and contains beautiful shots of Chicago. So why not serve kielbasas and deep-dish pizzas and mugs of beer? How about putting the waiters in Cubs jerseys and bartenders in White Sox jerseys — the rivalry plays into the plot — and have them curse at each other? What if you get Vaughn to attack the hors d’oeuvres table and pack his face full of carapaces, a la “Wedding Crashers”? He’s a fun guy. He’d be up for it.

Hollywood is counted on to wow the world. Can’t it wow itself?