In yet another stupidly crowded weekend at the box office (in such a crowded marketplace where only one new release debuted on more than 2,200 screens) we had yet another solid surprise, as the low-budget Act of Valor topped the box office with a $24.7 million debut. Relativity bought the $12 million production for $13 million and then spent another $30-$40 million to market it. Said marketing campaign highlighted the film's lone quirk -- that it starred actual Navy Seals and allegedly presented a more accurate picture of how such soldiers conduct themselves in the battlefield (they also bought a couple Super Bowl ads and screened the crap out of the film all over the country prior to release). Of course, such lofty attempts at realism didn't prevent a Perils of Pauline subplot (Roselyn Sanchez plays a kidnapped CIA operative who must be rescued by these manly men from torturous bad guys), but the marketing campaign certainly played on the idea that this film was more 'real' than the likes of Navy Seals. The picture earned an A from Cinemascore, which means that audiences obviously didn't mind the fact that the real life Seals are better at killing people than the whole 'acting' thing. As somewhat expected, it played best in regions that have military bases and places that certain parties dismissively refer to as 'fly-over country' (don't be that asshole).
I'm not going to get into the politics of what began as a recruitment advertisement for joining the Navy, as I haven't seen the film yet (opposing views here and here), and its value as propaganda is arguably no better/worse than the countless video games that this picture felt like a film adaptation of. Moreover, those on the Dennis Kucinich side of the fence will claim that this film is conservative propaganda, those on the Ron Paul side will say it bolsters support for Obama's recent military 'adventures', while seemingly liberal pundits will again decide that a film that supports the military and emphasizes their bravery and operational successes is somehow a right-wing picture. They are all wrong. But I will say that this is yet another sign that R-rated adult fare can succeed in the marketplace as long as it doesn't have to break box office records to make a profit. And that's a message everyone can get behind!
Coming in at second was Tyler Perry's Good Deeds. The film earned a solid $16 million, which is his second-lowest weekend behind the $11 million debut of Daddy's Little Girls (in which Perry did not appear in at all). But considering that the film didn't feature Perry's trademark Madea character nor was it a chapter in the popular Why Did I Get Married series, this was never going to hit the top of his personal curve. The film was an attempt for Perry to do a straight star vehicle, something arguably more conventional than the ensemble family dramedies that made him an entertainment icon. I don't know how much the film cost, but Perry's budgets rarely top $20 million, so this will likely be another easy moneymaker for Lionsgate and the Perry empire. Next up for Perry is The Marriage Counselor in July. In October, Perry stars in Cross, as he steps into the shoes of James Patterson's literary superstar Alex Cross in an attempt to revive the franchise that gave way to two popular Morgan Freeman vehicles in 1997 and 2001.
The third major new release is where the bad news starts. Wanderlust, the new Paul Rudd/Jennifer Aniston vehicle helmed by David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models), earned just $6.6 million. I often go out of my way to defend Jennifer Aniston as she often gets a lot of crap from other pundits who tend to cast her moderate hits as flops (The Bounty Hunter) and give credit to her unqualified smash hits to others (Marley and Me). But this is a pretty poor result, and the only real silver lining is that the film only cost Universal $30 million. Yes, the picture, about a Manhattan couple who end up living at a hippie commune, looked relatively unappealing, but true star power is often about selling a movie that has nothing to offer except your presence. As such, this is a big miss for Aniston and Rudd and proof that Rudd isn't so much a movie star as a likable asset when the premise is solid (Role Models, I Love You Man) or he's supporting a bigger star (Dinner For Schmucks). Aniston also isn't quite a 'by-herself' movie star at this point, as she needs a heavyweight like Adam Sandler to reach pure blockbuster status. Otherwise, her high-profile supporting role in the recent $117 million-grossing Horrible Bosses may be a sign of where she might want to play next. IE -- play against type.
The last new release basically felt like a dump. Technically a Summit Entertainment release, Amanda Seyfried's Gone (review) felt like the newly acquired (by Lionsgate) company merely disposing of 'old business'. The film went out without press screenings and seemed to be playing in the smallest auditoriums around (I saw it on Friday in a pretty tiny theater), so its mere $5 million debut isn't much of a surprise. The film has a certain goofy entertainment value, even if it arguably won't lose anything when viewed at home. This is obviously not good news for Amanda Seyfried, who has been pulling in $12-14 million debuts for the past two years (Dear John's massive $30 million debut was a case of the right subject matter plus co-star Channing Tatum in his strongest genre). But the fact that she's even getting all-by-herself star vehicles is something to not be taken lightly (she got top billing over Justin Timberlake in In Time despite merely playing the love interest/hostage). She has a part in the ensemble picture The Big Wedding later this year, but a major test for her will be the debut of Lovelace, where she plays Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace. Of course, she also plays Cosette in Tom Hopper's all-star adaption of Les Miserables, so Gone is arguably just a blip on her resume.
For holdover news and a peek at next weekend's releases, go to Mendelson's Memos.