Box Office: Natalie Portman Pulls the Strings

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Dale Robinette / Paramount Pictures / Everett

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached

Natalie Portman could do no wrong this week: first a Golden Globe, then a box office win. No Strings Attached, starring Portman and Ashton Kutcher as two pals who agree to be sex f(r)iends but not lovers, turned out to be a film with benefits; it topped the North American box office this weekend with $20.3 million, according to early studio estimates.

Portman, whose performance in Black Swan has garnered her a slew of year-end awards and a front-runner position for a Best Actress Oscar, scored with the well-timed release of her first Hollywood romantic comedy. Imagine that Black Swan's workaholic ballet dancer needed some stress-reducing sex, and you'd have this amiable, R-rated Snuggie of a winter movie. Elizabeth Meriwether's script, originally called F___buddies, hit enough of the required comedy and heart buttons to attract women (70% of the audience) and the young date crowd. The film's budget, which was announced as being $25 million, has been much debated by commenters on the website Deadline Hollywood; they peg it about $10 million higher. But dollar for dollar, No Strings made a far stronger showing than last week's $70 million comedy The Dilemma, which features major stars Vince Vaughn and Kevin James but grossed just $17 million in its Friday-to-Sunday debut over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

The MLK Jr. winner, Seth Rogen's rowdy remake of The Green Hornet, was second this time, at $18.1 million. It has amassed $63.4 million in 10 days, but the movie's financial status is still iffy, since its production budget was at least $110 million and its overseas market may not bring in the bonanza required for an expensive comedy adventure. Little Fockers and TRON: Legacy, the most prominent mainstream holdovers from the Christmas season, have chugged into the mid-hundred-million neighborhood domestically — and TRON has so far earned a third of a billion dollars worldwide — but neither is a blockbuster. Thus, 2010 will be the first time since 1999 when not one December release was one of the year's top 10 earners.

So what movies have people been paying to see? Low- to medium-budget films —a ballet horror picture, a boxing saga about a crazy family, a Brit drama and a western — all with their eyes on Oscar gold. Start with Black Swan's $83.6 million. Add the $73 million for The Fighter, which picked up Golden Globe supporting awards for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. And gaze agape at The King's Speech, the weekend's fourth-place finisher with $9.2 million, and $58.6 million in its ninth week. Colin Firth, the star of this true-life weepie about the future King of England, is the presumptive winner of the Oscar for Best Actor; Geoffrey Rush and possibly Helena Bonham Carter will be nominated for supporting Oscars (to be announced on Jan. 25). On Saturday the film enjoyed a surprise victory at the Producers Guild Awards, where it was chosen as best picture over the presumed favorite, The Social Network. All these films could reach or top a domestic gross of $100 million — an amazing parlay — and they'd still be far behind the Coen brothers' True Grit, which is pushing $140 million in North America and has quickly become one of the top-grossing westerns (in degraded current dollars) of all time.

The specialty universe usually operates on a nano level, where an opening weekend can be deemed solid if a film earns a tenth or a hundredth of a mainstream movie's take. The Company Men, with Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper as executives facing unemployment in the recent job crunch, made its debut on 15 screens and cadged a respectable $765,000; but by this time, the movie was supposed to have won some acting awards rather than just the muted respect of critics. Peter Weir's The Way Back opened in 650 theaters and pulled in $1.5 million — not so hot for a World War II drama with an admirable cast (Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong) and the director of Witness, Dead Poets Society and Master and Commander, but not so bad considering the film's downer synopsis: it's about prisoners who escape from a Soviet gulag and slog 4,000 miles across the chilling Siberian waste toward possible freedom. (Cf. the 2008 Defiance, another true-life tale of cold-weather survival.)

There's a dour moral to the release of The Company Men and The Way Back: on a winter weekend when much of the country is snowbound with chilblains, and after two years of a Great Recession that has put tens of millions of people out of work, even the more adventurous moviegoers want to see films that take them out of their real-life woes and into a fantasy world of gorgeous sex friends, stammering princes, never-say-die boxers, schizo ballerinas and girls who talk ornate and shoot straight.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. No Strings Attached, $20.3 million, first weekend
2. The Green Hornet, $18.1 million; $63.4 million, second week
3. The Dilemma, $9.7 million; $33.4 million, second week
4. The King's Speech, $9.2 million; $58.6 million, ninth week
5. True Grit, $8 million; $138.6 million, fifth week
6. Black Swan, $6.2 million; $83.6 million, eighth week
7. The Fighter, $4.5 million; $73 million, seventh week
8. Little Fockers, $4.4 million; $141.2 million, fifth week
9. Yogi Bear, $4 million; $88.9 million, fifth week
10. TRON: Legacy, $3.7 million; $163.3 million, seventh week