It doesn't take a rocket scientist to notice something strange happening to movie characters these days: Their IQ's are dropping faster than the Mexican peso. Think about it but not too hard, now. Dimwits propelled two of the most popular movies of the past few months: the mild-mannered simpleton of Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) and the chip-toothed, bowl-haired moron of Dumb and Dumber (Jim Carrey). Meanwhile, flicks about smart people have left theaters empty both I.Q. and Quiz Show did box office belly-flops. If the trend keeps up, we may soon be paying $8 to watch Tom Cruise drool into a bucket for two hours.
''The level of cultural involvement in this country has sunk to a new low,'' says one studio exec. ''It's scary.''
Admittedly, low-watt characters have always been a Hollywood staple. In comedies, such actors as Laurel and Hardy and Peter Sellers (as The Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau) left their gray matter in the dressing room and invited us to feel superior to their wall-bumping ways. In dramas, not-so-bright characters have used their essential goodness to triumph over evil intellectuals. (See Gary Cooper in 1941's Meet John Doe or Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner in 1979's Being There.)
Reactions to this trend from America's smarty-pants range from mild amusement to outright alarm. But almost all say the world was primed for Hollywood-style dumbness.
''We're in a period now that's getting more complex,'' says professional intellectual Camille Paglia, explaining the success of Forrest Gump. ''There's endless, Kafkaesque bureaucracy and more complicated technology. We are craving a return to simplicity.''
A good no-brainer guffaw is what people want in this hangover-from-the-'80s decade, say industry watchers. And with TV overrun with wordy, Seinfeld-like sitcoms (as opposed to Three's Company-style goofiness), the big screen has filled that vacuum. ''Comedy tried to do sort of a dignified turn there for a while,'' says Jim Varney, star of the brainless Ernest series. ''But it had to come back to the basics: a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants.''
Along those lines, there's a lot more dumb still to come. To wit:
IDIOTS Two competing Elvis impersonators find themselves on the run from cops after being framed for murder. Status: MGM hopes to start shooting this spring, pending a director and cast. Dumb quotient: (From 1 to 10, with 10 being almost average intelligence) 8. ''They're Elvis impersonators, so you tell me,'' says studio president John Calley.