Inglourious Basterds is a 2½-hr. period piece a war movie with no battle scenes and lots of talk, most of it in French or German. Except for Brad Pitt, all of its main actors are unknown to the mass American audience. Its writer-director's last film, Grindhouse, earned only $25 million in its entire domestic run. And Harvey Weinstein, whose troubled company is distributing Basterds, was widely quoted as telling GQ, "It isn't funny; it isn't exciting ... It isn't emotionally involving ... Brad Pitt gives the worst performance of his life." Actually, those words weren't Weinstein's; they were from Peter Bradshaw's early review of the movie in the Guardian. But the appearance of the misquote on so many websites spread the idea that Basterds was an iffy business proposition, and that its Friday opening might prove to be a night of the long knives.
Instead, it was V-E Day. Quentin Tarantino's epic rewrite of World War II marched victoriously across 3,165 North American movie screens to exceed all industry expectations and earn $37.6 million, according to official studio estimates. That made it the best opening ever for an August release, and by far the best weekend numbers for the auteur of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. As a box-office winner, this might be Tarantino's masterpiece. And since the decline from Friday to Saturday was a relatively gentle 10%, the indication is that the R-rated Basterds has an appeal beyond Tarantino's base of avid fanboys, most of whom would have clogged the theaters on opening day regardless of any bad press. The movie also took in a robust $27.5 million abroad, where many Europeans could finally see a Hollywood adventure film made in some of their own languages.
After a few weekends when movies pitched to women and kids broke into the upper echelon of the box office top 10, this dog-day frame was dominated by three hard-charging guy films, each aiming for essentially the same audience. Last week's No. 1, the South African alien-apartheid thriller District 9, lost 49% of its opening audience but snagged the second-place position with $18.9 million, for a 10-day domestic total of $73 million not bad for a movie budgeted at just $30 million. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra picked up another $12.5 million to finish third. In 16 days the testosterone-toy action film has earned more than $120 million in North America and another $100 million abroad, increasing prospects for a sequel. (There's already been talk this weekend of a Basterds prequel. Strong opening numbers make anything possible.)
The rest of the top 10 was neatly segregated into femme-friendly films (The Time Traveler's Wife in fourth place; Julie & Julia in fifth), movies for kids (Shorts, making its debut in sixth place, followed by G-Force and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and two comedies about emotionally stranded young women (Katherine Heigl's The Ugly Truth in ninth and the new Post Grad in 10th).
Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino's co-director on Grindhouse, makes some movies (Sin City) for the Tarantino crowd and others, like Shorts, for youngsters. Not many members of either demographic came to his minor effort about a magic rock in a suburban town. As for Post Grad, it top-lined Alexis Bledel (who would make anyone's list of the five most adorable humans), but the presence of the Gilmore Girls and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants star couldn't draw flies to the movie. Its $2.8 million weekend take was one of the lowest of the season for a major studio wide release ... unless you count X Games 3D: The Movie, which Disney opened on 1,400 screens to an abysmal $800,000. In a much more limited opening four theaters the family romance My One and Only pulled in a sparse $60,000. That wouldn't be worth mentioning, except that its leading lady, Renée Zellweger, used to be a movie star.
No, this weekend's triumphant triumvirate was the suddenly glourious Brad, Quentin and Harvey. Basterds' first-weekend success was so explosive that it might resolve the real suspense surrounding the movie: not whether some resourceful Jews could defeat Hitler in 1944, but whether Tarantino's $70 million production could save the Weinstein Co. from deep financial distress and possible bankruptcy. In both cases, the answer could be an improbable but ringing yes!
Here are the studios' official weekend estimates for the top 10 movies, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Inglourious Basterds, $37.6 million, first weekend
2. District 9, $18/$9 million; $73.5 million, second week
3. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, $12.5 million; $120.5 million, third week
4. The Time Traveler's Wife, $10 million; $37.4 million, second week
5. Julie & Julia, $9 million; $59.3 million, third week
6. Shorts, $6.6 million, first weekend
7. G-Force, $4.2 million; $107.3 million, fifth week
8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, $3.5 million; $290.3 million, sixth week
9. The Ugly Truth, $2.9 million; $82.9 million, fifth week
10. Post Grad, $2.8 million, first weekend