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It was the Summer of Raunch at the movies

From "Bridesmaids" to "The Change-Up," recent movies have dared to ratchet up the bawdiness to levels that usually were seen only in "Porky's"-style films. But in a stark departure from those locker-room peep-hole days, these films are attracting major stars, major budgets and in some cases, winning critical praise. Apparently it's acceptable to be naughty again in Hollywood.

Call 2011 the Summer of Raunch.

It is a dubious title in the creative community, but a badge of honor in studio boardrooms.

“The Hangover Part II” has made more than $254 million domestically, even though it was slammed by many critics. “Horrible Bosses,” which received decent to good reviews, was a winner at the box office, grossing more than $110 million. Other recent entries in the raunchy category such as “Bridesmaids,” “Bad Teacher,” “30 Minutes or Less” and “The Change-Up” have performed well enough to prove that the genre is still alive and relevant.

“Everything is story and character,” noted film critic Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter. “The filmmakers who put out poor ones have lost sight of the fact that you have to have good characters in good stories, whether it’s animated films, family films, raunchy comedies. ‘Conan [the Barbarian],’ for instance, has no character and no story.

“It’s not enough to have a raunchy situation. There has to be someone in a raunchy situation you care about.”

In Honeycutt’s recent review of “30 Minutes or Less,” he took the genre to task for a lack of imagination: “ 'This has not been a good summer for the R-rated comedy,' " he wrote, going on to say that "to continually subject even a pretty undemanding public to lame, witless comedies sprinkled with four-letter words and mildly suggestive sexuality may turn R into a red flag for rubbish.’”

While acknowledging that there are often many cooks collaborating on a foul comedic stew, especially producers and studio executives, Honeycutt said this summer’s comedies — with some exceptions — rely on “lazy screenwriters using bad language.”

This is not to say that all raunch reeks. “Bridesmaids,” for instance, amassed glowing reviews. “Horrible Bosses” received a 69 percent approval on RottenTomatoes.com. But that’s about it in the lowbrow category this summer. The rest have been as glaringly unattractive as the tattoo on Ed Helms’ face.

Movie blogger Andrew Wells of A Penny in the Well considers “Animal House” to be the godfather of raunchy movies, and also mentioned “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Porky’s” and “Police Academy” as successful and commendable entries. He said the Farrelly Brothers (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary”) were the standard-bearers in the 1990s, and Judd Apatow fills that position today.

“[The raunch trend] reached its peak with 2009’s ‘The Hangover,’ ” Wells explained. “(It) proved that not only could these movies be popular and critically successful, but they could also play ball with the blockbuster special-effects extravaganzas.”

But, he said, the result this summer is a raft of mostly disappointing releases. “The major complaint most critics have had against all these others is their lack of originality,” Wells said. “Another is their misconception that just because it’s shocking it must be funny. Yet they’ve continued to bring in big box-office money.”

And that’s the ticket, as it usually is. Cash. There is more raunch coming out of the Hollywood machine because the market for it is vast, hungry and expanding. Jack Epps, who teaches comedy writing at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, explained that the bulk of it is overseas.

“The international market plays a huge role in the choices of movies that get produced,” he said. “Especially comedies. They’re more physical and visual and they play better internationally.” Epps noted that “The Hangover Part II” has made more than $580 million worldwide, and 56 percent of that came from the international market.

What does the future hold for this genre? Will we see the launch of more raunch? And will offerings get better, or decline in quality?

Erin Walsh, a 29-year-old movie fan from Cranford, N.J., said that new waves of young moviegoers will keep demand steady for raunchy fare. “I think they’re coming out more and more,” she said of those types of films. “I really do think it depends on a certain age group and a certain maturity level. I don’t think it has to do with these times.”

But a change may be coming.

“I think we’ll see a leveling out period soon, like we’re seeing now with the superhero genre,” Wells explained. “As the genre first became popular there were wildly varying degrees of success. One would be great. The next would be terrible. Then the filmmakers began to figure out what was working and we had a few years when every superhero movie was pretty good.

“Then they started repeating themselves, and some franchises that helped establish the high mark, like ‘Spider-Man,’ began to falter. Now, Marvel Studios has redefined the game with their ‘Avengers’ initiative. The other studios are beginning to follow suit and things are starting to level out. I think we’ll see a similar leveling in the raunch category with a lot more raunch fare out there taking less risks and having a middle-of-the-road effect.”

While Epps longs for more smart comedies like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” he said the quality of writing on many television shows is excellent, indicating that there is a demand in popular culture for humor that isn’t necessarily based on poo jokes. He also identified successful comedies like “Superbad” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” as relatively recent bright spots in broad humor.

“So I don’t think it’s grim,” he said. “It’s just different. We’re in a different period. Everything revolves and changes. Something will evolve out of this.”

Have you seen any of these comedies? What do you think of the raunchy tone in movies this summer?

Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVentre44.

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