Ed Helms has a missing front incisor; it never grew in when he was a kid. The actor mentioned this to the makers of his new movie, The Hangover, and they built a subplot around it, making Helms's character a dentist who, in a gesture of drunken machismo, pulls out his own tooth. That's just one element of serendipity that helped The Hangover a no-star farce about three guys who lose their best friend on a Vegas toot break the bank at this weekend's box office. Two other lucky breaks: the recent absence of R-rated guys-only comedies, and the odd inability of Will Ferrell to hold onto the mass audience for two films in a row.
According to official industry estimates, the Pixar feature Up won the weekend with $44.2 million, with Warner Bros.' The Hangover a close second at $43.3 million, and the Ferrell time-travel jape, Universal's Land of the Lost, a remote and depleted third at $19.5 million. That would make Up the first movie of the summer season (which on Hollywood's calendar begins May 1) to finish No. 1 two weeks in a row. (Read TIME's profile of Will Ferrell Brilliant Idiot)
But wait a minute or, rather, a day. The numbers that shape box-office reports like this are announced each Sunday at noon, before anyone's so much as bought a ticket for today's shows, and are therefore based only on Friday and Saturday ticket sales. The prediction of final weekend grosses thus involve much entrail-reading, analysis of the success of earlier films in the same genre and the possible use of Ouija boards. The tense to be used in these stories really shouldn't be the past ("won") but the future perfect ("will have") or, more cautiously, the conditional ("may").
In fact, for the two days for which there's hard data, The Hangover led Up, $31.4 million to $30.7 million. Industry swamis are presumably banking on kids and their grandparents streaming to the Pixar movie on a summer Sunday, while the Warner puke-fest will have exhausted its core constituency. But that ignores The Hangover's very strong word of mouth; people who might not have gone now know this is the movie de jour. (Everybody who needs to know about Up already knows.) And as Dan Fellman, Warner's distribution chief, told the AP, "Sunday's always good for a hangover." By tomorrow, when the final figures come in, there could be a photo finish for first place.
As the road-movie comedy about the old man and a kid battles the road-movie comedy with three men and a baby for weekend supremacy, the road-movie comedy about a scientist dousing himself in dinosaur urine is news for what it didn't achieve. Ferrell, the one familiar star name among the leads in the week's big movies, promoted his film on nearly every media outlet. (Helms told his tooth story on the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.) Yet Land of the Lost was creamed by movies whose top-billed actors are Ed Asner and Bradley Cooper.
Since establishing his star status in 2003 with the Christmas comedy Elf, Ferrell has had an up-and-down relationship with audiences: they go, then they don't go. Hits like Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory and Step Brothers, all of which earned more than $100 million at the North American box office, are sandwiched by underachievers like Kicking and Screaming, Stranger Than Fiction and Semi-Pro, all of which took in less than $60 million.
Aside from Ferrell fatigue and near-libelous reviews, there's another explanation for Land of the Lost's becoming the season's first pricey roadkill. After Night at the Museum 2 and Up, it was the third consecutive action comedy with at least one prehistoric beast. In two weeks, Jack Black and Michael Cera will play the dino-comedy card again with Year One. Sony, the film's distributor, might want to reposition Year One's marketing to emphasize its pedigree as a Judd Apatow comedy (from which The Hangover was clearly spawned), and to sell the primitive wilderness that Black and Cera wander through as Vegas without the neon. And maybe the CGI techies could quickly black out one of Jack's teeth.
Here are Box Office Mojo's official weekend estimates of the top 10 movies:
1. Up, $44.2 million; $137.6 million, second week
2. The Hangover, $43.3 million, first weekend
3. Land of the Lost, $19.5 million, first weekend
4. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, $14.6 million; $127.3 million, third weekend
5. Star Trek, $8.4 million: $222.8 million, fifth week
6. Terminator Salvation, $8.2 million; $105.5 million, third weekend
7. Drag Me to Hell, $7.3 million; $28.5 million, second weekend
8. Angels & Demons, $6.5 million; $116.1 million, fourth week
9. My Life in Ruins, $3.2 million, first weekend
10. Dance Flick, $2 million; $22.7 million, third week