There are few recent cinematic traditions more reliable than the breakout summer comedy. Audiences, up to their eyeballs in big-budget action movies, every year show up in droves to turn a more modestly budgeted comedy into a major hit. 2012 had Ted, which earned almost $550 million worldwide on a $50 million budget. 2011 had Bridesmaids, which grossed $283 million on a budget of just $32.5 million.
But the summer of 2013 has yet to see a comedy that can claim anything near that kind of success. Two weeks ago, The Hangover Part III was released to scathing reviews and a disappointing opening weekend, leaving the slot open for one of its rivals. Looking to the months ahead, what are the major contenders for this summer's big breakout comedy? A guide:
1. The Internship
Starring Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne
After losing their jobs, two middle-aged men secure internships at Google, where they rush to compete with younger rivals who are also vying for a job with the company.
Points for: Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's last major collaboration was the 2005 megahit Wedding Crashers, which kicked off the modern trend of releasing raunchy R-rated blockbusters in the middle of summer.
Points against: Did you watch the trailer for The Internship? Both Vaughn and Wilson's stars have faded significantly in the eight years since Wedding Crashers hit theaters, and this weirdly retrograde movie is a transparent and unconvincing attempt to recapture that Wedding Crashers magic. To make matters worse, Vaughn's last collaboration with co-writer Jared Stern and director Shawn Levy was last year's dismal, underperforming sci-fi comedy The Watch.
Final analysis: The Onion has it right; this might have been a hit in 2005, but it's hard to imagine that contemporary audiences are in the market for a feature-length paean to Google.
2. This is the End
Starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel
When the apocalypse abruptly breaks out during a party at James Franco's house, a group of celebrities attempts to survive.
Points for: Judd Apatow may not be formally involved, but This is the End features many of the producer/director's favorite players — including Rogen, Franco, Michael Cera, and Baruchel — who have proven their summer comedy credentials in movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, and The Pineapple Express.
Points against: The film's core set-up, which revolves around its stars playing exaggerated versions of themselves, could be too cutesy and self-referential to bring mainstream audiences in. And last year's attempt at an apocalypse-themed comedy, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, sputtered at the box-office despite a huge cast of well-liked comic actors.
Final analysis: It's probably too inside-baseball for mainstream audiences, but This is the End is poised to be a nice little hit for Columbia Pictures (and the very positive early reviews will probably give it an extra boost).
3. The Heat
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock, Tony Hale
Two lone-wolf law enforcement officers are forced to team up in order to take down a drug lord.
Points for: After the smash success of Bridesmaids in 2011, director Paul Feig selected The Heat for his follow-up project, and brought Bridesmaids scene-stealer Melissa McCarthy along for the ride. Hollywood produces no shortage of buddy cop action comedies — in fact, there are two more coming up in this list — but a buddy cop comedy that stars two women is a fresh spin on the well-worn genre.
Points against: Between Identity Thief and The Hangover Part III, Melissa McCarthy has already starred in two disappointing comedies in 2013 — though both were box-office successes — and Sandra Bullock hasn't opened a comedy since before her Oscar win for The Blind Side in 2009.
Final analysis: All early signs indicate that The Heat will be a big hit, and 20th Century Fox apparently agrees; a sequel is already in the early stages of development.
4. Grown Ups 2
Starring Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James
After moving back to his hometown, a man gets into a series of misadventures with his childhood friends.
Points for: Though critics hated it, the first Grown Ups was an unexpectedly massive hit with audiences in 2010. After three years, Sony Pictures clearly feels the need to remind everyone that they saw the first movie. (The trailer for Grown Ups 2 even opens with a flashback to the first film's "chocolate wasted" scene.) If audiences have any nostalgia for the original, they'll probably show up for the sequel.
Points against: Sandler's once rock-solid hold on the box office has started to waver; 2011's execrable Jack & Jill grossed well under his usual baseline, and last summer's That's My Boy was an out-and-out flop.
Final analysis: It's a toss-up. If audiences have finally tired of Sandler's shtick, it's hard to imagine that the prospect of another summer vacation with Sandler and his buddies sounds appealing; if audiences remember Grown Ups fondly enough, they'll turn Grown Ups 2 into a comparable hit. I'd bet on the latter.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Mary-Louise Parker
A cop killed in the line of duty is recruited by the "R.I.P.D." — or "Rest in Peace Department" — where he teams up with a grizzled veteran to catch dead souls that have escaped back into the world of the living.
Points for: Last year's Men in Black III proved that there's still an appetite for sci-fi/comedy blockbusters. Bridges is doing a barely-disguised riff on his well-received starring performance in 2010's True Grit, which earned him an Oscar nomination.
Points against: Ryan Reynolds already has one effects-heavy, poorly received summer blockbuster under his belt — 2011's Green Lantern — and the marketing for R.I.P.D. is looking similarly muddled. Like many recent hits, it's based on a comic book. Unfortunately, it's a comic book familiar to no one but hardcore genre fans. And Men in Black aside, recent big-budget, higher-concept comedies have a very inconsistent track record at the box-office.
Final analysis: My guess is that R.I.P.D.'s marketing campaign hews a little too closely to the Men in Black franchise, and that audiences will turn up their noses at what looks like (and may well turn out to be) a blatant retread.
6. 2 Guns
Starring Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Bill Paxton
Two undercover cops — neither of whom realized that the other wasn't actually a criminal — team up after a mobster sets them both up and makes off with a big score.
Points for: Washington and Wahlberg are both coming off big hits from last year (Washington's Oscar-nominated turn in Flight and Wahlberg's lead performance in Ted). The trailers showcase a convincing, prickly chemistry between the two leading men.
Points against: There's a chance that audiences will be burned out on the buddy cop comedies after The Heat and R.I.P.D. (though this more conventional riff on the genre is probably a safer bet than either of those films).
Final analysis: This has all the makings of a hit. Audiences love both Washington and Wahlberg, and will probably be looking for a slightly more grounded blockbuster after the onslaught of superhero movies in June and July.
7. The To-Do List
Aubrey Plaza, Alia Shawkat, Bill Hader
A recent high school graduate decides to spend her summer checking off boxes on a sexual bucket list before she starts her freshman year at college.
Points for: Star Aubrey Plaza scored with audiences in last summer's indie dramedy hit Safety Not Guaranteed, and a surprisingly chaste summer comedy lineup leaves plenty of room for a raunchy hard-R comedy. And even if The To-Do List fails to connect with mainstream audiences, the bar for success is fairly low; the film was produced on a micro-budget of just $1.2 million.
Points against: Aubrey Plaza is still relatively unknown and untested as a leading actress, and The To-Do List is hitting theaters too late to serve as counter-programming for a full slate of big-budget summer blockbusters.
Final analysis: Easy A proved that there's a market for smart teen sex comedies, and The To-Do List looks like a sharp, raunchier comedy in a similar vein. It'll find its audience.
8. The World's End
Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman
A group of friends reunite to finish a pub crawl that they failed to complete years earlier — unaware that they are secretly humankind's last hope for survival.
Points for: Between Martin Freeman's The Hobbit and Simon Pegg's Star Trek Into Darkness, the star wattage has never been higher for a film in the loosely connected "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy (which also includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz).
Points against: The World's End might suffer from comparisons to This is the End, which is beating it to post-apocalyptic comedy-land by months. Mainstream audiences snubbed World's End director Edgar Wright's frenetic, similarly pitched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (though that film has since justly earned a sizable cult of its own).
Final analysis: The series already has a rabid fan base that will lap up this third (and presumably final) entry in the series. Mainstream success is far less likely, but that's not really the goal here anyway.