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Can Puffy Puff Up Ailing Paramount?

 Sean 'P. Diddy/Puff Daddy' Combs | Rapper's Made Debut, by Swingers  | Alicia Keys | The Sopranos

Can Puffy Puff Up Ailing Paramount?

What a time for Paramount Pictures: Their summer and spring — with the exception of the truly awful Tomb Raider — hasn't been so great. And now it seems they have no real fall or holiday release they can count on, with the exception of a road-rage buddy movie called Changing Lanes (with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson playing Road Runner and Wily Coyote-type characters) and a shared credit (with DreamWorks) on Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky. It's not going to be much of a Christmas, or a Thanksgiving, at that rate.

Even perennial Paramount producer Scott Rudin isn't helping out. His prestige movies — Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Stephen Daldry's The Hours — are with Disney and (shared credit with) Miramax respectively.

What a change too: In the past, Paramount could always be counted on for one big commercial hit, like Forrest Gump. After all, this is the studio that once gave us The Godfather movies. But that heyday is now so much in the past it seems like something from a newsreel.

Recently, according to my sources, head studio honchos Jonathan Dolgen and Jon Goldwyn escorted Sean "P. Diddy/Puff Daddy" Combs, acquitted rap impresario and aspiring actor, around the executive suite in Hollywood. They are convinced that despite his recent troubles, Combs is bankable in movie land and could be their saving grace in the very near future.

Paramount is fast becoming as moribund in its way as Warner Bros. — with no Oscar presence since 1997 (a co-credit for Titanic with 20th Century Fox). Last night they kept the press out of their premiere for Frank Oz's The Score. Why? Apparently, it's so bad the studio was petrified that cast members might give New York columnists the score.

This is the caper film that stars Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett, and Marlon Brando. Usually when anyone signs up Brando for a film they're so pleased that the oft-cited "best actor of the last generation" gets huge play. But Paramount has all but omitted Brando from any appearance in commercials and in the film's trailer. Bassett, a past Oscar nominee and respected actress, also gets short shrift from the Paramount marketing team.

The studio's current and recent crop of releases includes the Indiana Jones rip-off, mind-numbingly bad Tomb Raider; Chris Rock's expletive-included, short and embarrassing Pootie Tang; Chris Rock's money-making but nevertheless hideous Down to Earth; the least needed movie of 2001, Crocodile Dundee in L.A.; and John Travolta's unlucky Lucky Numbers.

For the fall, the prospects are questionable still. There's Ben Stiller's satire, Zoolander, in September, which could be funny or too "inside," and the possibility of an Oscar-caliber release with The Hours.

And the potential huge lemons are out there, such as John Travolta's next film Domestic Disturbance. Apparently the studio wasn't satisfied with losing the farm on Lucky Numbers, which did $10 million in ticket sales with a $70-million budget. They must think that Travolta's more recent release, Swordfish, from Warner Bros., was his comeback: It's a good $30 million away from breaking even. (Don't even get me started on the Battlefield Earth debacle.)

For Paramount, which lived for years on tales of the Starship Enterprise, maybe it's time to call William Shatner home from the Price Line commercials. This one could be called Star Trek 10: The Nursing Home. And there's always talk of the next Raiders of the Lost Ark movie, called Indiana Jones Saves a Studio.

Puffy's Made Debut, by Swingers 

Sean Combs, meantime, makes his not-too-shabby official movie debut this week in Made, Jon Favreau's new comedy/drama about two schmoes (Favreau and Vince Vaughn, reprising their attitudes from Swingers) who want to be in the Mob but really should be doing Laurel and Hardy celebrity impressions.

Combs plays a gangster, and even though this might seem like typecasting, he acquits himself nicely. He seems relaxed and genuine, and not at all stagey. Peter Falk — who should be in more movies and was a pleasure to see in this one — plays their boss. There is also a delicious cameo by one of my favorite new actors, Sam Rockwell, as a hotel porter.

At the premiere screening, Combs — who is P. Diddy these days, but Sean Combs on screen — sat in the upper balcony with mom Janice. She wore her customary floor-length platinum wig. When Combs' name was read out as a cast member, he rose and did a few pelvic thrusts in celebration. His mother looked pleased.

Favreau — nattily attired in a cream suit — brought his whole family, including his 92-year-old grandmother who looked and acted like she was 72. "I feel like I'm 62," she said. Favreau agreed the Spa party was like his bar mitzvah, only with booming house music, no lights and not enough room to breathe properly.

Combs, however, passed on the party at a club called Spa, which is also featured prominently in the film. Also passing on the Spa crush was gifted R&B singer Faith Evans, who sang Puffy's rehabbed Police hit "Every Breath You Take" as "I'll Be Missing You" on the charts some seasons back. Evans appears on the new P. Diddy/Bad Boy album released on Tuesday even though Combs is often mentioned in discussions of the 1996 murder of her late husband, Christopher Wallace, also known as rapper Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls. Her own next album will be on Puffy's Bad Boy Records.

Evans, a practical girl, knows how to let bygones be bygones.

Is Alicia Keys Album a Phenom in the Making? 

Alicia Keys' debut album on Clive Davis' new J Records, "Songs in A Minor," has now sold a little over 400,000 copies in two weeks' time. On the next Billboard Top 200 Album Chart she falls to No. 2, with only 306 copies separating her from the No. 1 position, held by Interscope Records rappers D-12.

This is just the beginning for "Songs in A Minor," which looks like it could become one of those phenom releases, like Alanis Morisette's "Jagged Little Pill." The Velvet Rope Web site cites J Records' Peter Edge as the guy who's been behind Alicia from day 1, so we will, too, before everyone else in the record biz starts staking their claim!

Bada Bing, Redux

So, the word is out that The Sopranos will be back for a 5th season, one more than that for which they were contracted. Of course, Fox 411 readers knew that ten days ago, didn't we? …

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