Weekend Forecast
By David Mumpower
February 23, 2007

Russell Crowe's not the only guy who can play with numbers on a wall!

After five new titles entered the marketplace last weekend, this seems like the type of frame where studios should take it easy. Someone needs to tell them that, however. Another five new movies are released on Friday, giving these two weeks in February almost as many new wide releases as the entirety of January. None of the new contestants is guaranteed to unseat the flaming biker who conquered North America, though.

This is a quirky weekend for new releases. Warner Bros. offers a strange tale of amateur interstellar space exploration/astronomy; Walden Media offers us a world history lesson; and New Line delivers a paranoid tale based on mathematics. Hit the theaters this weekend and brush up for the SAT, kids! The biggest title is, of course, the one starring Jim Carrey, The Number 23. The A-list actor's career has always cleanly divided into categories. The goofy comedies that have allowed him to earn more than the gross national product of many third world countries are his bread and butter. The subversive dramas he has attempted have usually failed to deliver at the box office nor have they earned him that Oscar nod for which he continues to troll. The Number 23 falls in the latter category.

Carrey portrays two different characters, Walter Sparrow and Fingerling. The former is a relatively ordinary man whose world comes undone after reading a trendy new thriller named The Number 23. He begins to see shadows as he mentally re-enacts scenes from the book. Fingerling is the private eye in the story, and Walter steadily realizes that the character's struggles in dealing with a femme fatale named Fabrizia are easy to correlate to encounters with his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen, also in a dual performance). In point of fact, the movie seems almost auto-biographical in a Stranger Than Fiction kind of way.

Over the course of the film, Carrey gradually goes nuts while trying to decipher the truth behind the fiction. Given that mathematicians going crazy is a frequent historical occurrence and that Carrey is also dangerously close to the edge anyway, there doesn't seem to be much acting or character development required in The Number 23. This is good news since the project is directed by Joel Schumacher, reunited with Carrey for the first time since Batman Forever.

The Number 23 is a difficult film to gauge. Carrey's last serious role, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is arguably the finest of his career. Despite its tremendous quality, the movie mustered only $34.1 million. Conversely, the instantly forgettable Fun with Dick and Jane - the actor's most recent work - earned $110.3 million. Over the course of Carrey's career, movie-going audiences have spoken loudly on the subject of the type of roles they want him to perform. If you question this, simply look at the rest of the numbers for his dramas throughout the years. Man on the Moon accrued $34.6 million, Simon Birch was a non-factor with $18.3 million, The Cable Guy disappointed with $60.2 million and The Majestic bombed with $27.8 million. Only The Truman Show was a combination of box office success ($125.6 million) and well-received Jim Carrey drama. This is grim news for a Joel Schumacher film about math. I project a $19 million weekend for Carrey's latest drama, which would be good but not great.

The other big new release this weekend is Reno 911!: Miami, a cable television series earning a theatrical release. For the uninformed, it's a Super Troopers type of television show using a lot of cast members from MTV's The State. You also might know many of them from the 2001 teen sex comedy spoof, Wet Hot American Summer. Where you really know a couple of the key players, Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, is from their screenwriting. The two men have written several recent movies including The Pacifier, Taxi, Let's Go to Prison, Herbie: Fully Loaded, and the biggie, Night at the Museum. The success of that last title probably made Fox boost the advertising budget a bit for Reno 911!'s movie adaptation as a showing of gratitude for their writing the (soon to be) #2 release of calendar 2006.

As for Reno 911! itself, the Comedy Central program is very popular with teen boys. Serendipitously, this is the only audience that still consistently shows up for any and all movies on opening weekend. The last relatively unknown television series adapted into a movie was (sorry, fellow Browncoats) Serenity in September of 2005. That film's $10.1 million is a solid baseline for Reno: 911!: Miami though I am slightly more bullish on the comedy since it requires less knowledge of the back story. An $11.7 million weekend appears reasonable, which would be a solid success for Fox.

The most unusual new release this weekend is Billy Bob Thornton's latest offering, The Astronaut Farmer. A new iteration of the Field of Dreams/It's a Wonderful Life movie style, this throwback production tells the story of a former astronaut forced to quit NASA in order to take care of his family back home in Texas. The character, Charles Farmer, never gives up on his dream. Over a 15 year period, his wife (Virginia Madsen again) and children help him build a rocket in their barn. As was the case in the other two American film classics, the bank gets involved, threatening to foreclose on Farmer's ranch. Meanwhile, the government takes an interest when the family attempts to purchase rocket fuel. Undeterred by all of the cynics who don't understand that his life's purpose must be achieved, Farmer still embarks upon an attempt to fly into space. Early reviews for the movie are best described as glowing, but it's probably going to have to settle for a single digits opening weekend, solid legs, and a comfortable amount of success on home video. 1999's thematically similar October Sky appears to be a solid blueprint here. That film earned $5.9 million opening weekend on its way to $32.5 million in domestic receipts. Allowing for ticket price inflation, The Astronaut Farmer should be looking at a $6.8 million weekend.

The final two releases this weekend are much smaller affairs. Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce (Fantastic Four's Ioan Gruffudd), a British abolitionist who challenged the conventional wisdom of British Parliament regarding slavery thanks to the help of William Pitt aka Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch). He also receives an assist as well as moral support from Jon Newton (Albert Finney), the sea captain/minister who wrote Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace is only being exhibited in 791 venues, but it has marketed itself well to religious institutions. Many of them are purchasing tickets to entire screenings in order to support this feel-good story about how one politician can make a difference as a crusader for doing what's right. A $4.2 million weekend would reflect an excellent per-venue average, once again demonstrating that there are movies that Hollywood can make that draw in an audience which otherwise eschews the cineplex. The other new release is the prophetically titled The Abandoned. I don't expect it to crack the top ten. It appears to be a box office non-factor.