For hard proof this economy is going to the dogs, consider the box office, where a little bitch wearing Chanel has had the No. 1 movie in the country for two weekends in row. In the past 10 days, Disney's Beverly Hills Chihuahua, the tale of a pampered Angeleno pooch who ends up fending for herself in a gritty Mexico, has wagged all the way to a $52.5 million take, beating two-legged stars like Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Murray.
"When everything seems murky and complicated in the world, people are interested in checking their minds at the door," says Steve Mason, box-office analyst at FantasyMoguls.com. "So they're going to a movie about a dog in a purse."
Drew Barrymore is the voice of Chloe, a high-maintenance, pink-bootie-wearing Chihuahua with a hovering celebrity owner (Jamie Lee Curtis). When her careless dog sitter (Piper Perabo) takers Chloe to Mexico, the pooch is kidnapped by a dog-fighting ring. But in this pup's harrowing quest to return home to the Hills, she ends up finding her inner bark.
If that all sounds like a high-budget Taco Bell ad to you, you must be a cat person, because audiences have rated Beverly Hills Chihuahua an A, according to Cinemascore, a company that exit-polls moviegoers. "People love this movie," says Chuck Viane, Disney's head of distribution. "When that happens, they become your marketing team." Thanks to good word of mouth, on the second weekend, more couples, as opposed to just families, chose to spend their date night with talking dogs.
A voice cast heavy on Latino talent has helped make the movie a particular hit with Hispanics. George Lopez plays Papi, a Chihuahua next door with a crush on Chloe; Andy Garcia is Delgado, a German shepherd with a shadowy past; and Edward James Olmos, Paul Rodriguez, Placido Domingo, Luis Guzman and Cheech Marin voice other key roles.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua has more than just escapism going for it. As the tale of an overindulged heroine learning to do without her day spa, it might appeal to moviegoers who are tightening their budgets. "Sometimes a Chihuahua is not just a Chihuahua," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office analysis firm Media by Numbers. "The whole riches-to-rags story resonates well in this economic climate."
In a season when studios typically start unfurling their Oscar fare, the success of mindless chow like Beverly Hills Chihuahua may not bode well for more serious-minded films due in coming months. "Anything with a dark theme this fall, I'm questioning," says Mason. "People are rejecting war and politics as a subject."
Those needing even more canine catharsis will not have long to wait. Bolt, an animated movie about a doggie superhero, with Miley Cyrus and John Travolta in the voice cast, opens in November. And in December there's Marley and Me, in which Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson learn life lessons from a neurotic Labrador. Because at the end of the day, moviegoer, there's no problem man's best friend can't lick.