Man-Boy Box Office Battle: Sandler Edges the Bieb

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Tracy Bennett / Columbia Pictures

Jennifer Aniston (left) and Adam Sandler star in Columbia Pictures' comedy Just Go With It.

Who do ya love, ladies? Apparently, a 44-year-old doofus and a 16-year-old still awaiting his first shave. Adam Sandler's Just Go With It earned $31 million at North American theaters, according to early studio estimates, to take the provisional box-office crown. Provisional because Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, the seraphic pop star's 3-D concert film, was right behind at $30.3 million. Final tallies will be announced Monday.

Either way, it was girls gone wild at the box office. Just Go With It was sold with the image of sea nymph Brooklyn Decker, outfitted in Ursula Andress's old bikini from Dr. No, to lure Sandler's usual young-male fan base. But that was just guy-bait; the movie is about a surgeon who seduces women by telling them he's in an unhappy marriage and corrals Jennifer Aniston to play his wife/beard — and, of course, falls in love with her. Thus did the most reliable comedy star of the past decade (ten previous Sandler films have opened at No. 1) expand his market: the audience for Just Go With It was 58% female and 67% over the age of 25. (Sandler is 44, Aniston 42.)

Though savaged by critics, with a lamentable 18% grade from the Rotten Tomatoes survey of movie reviewers, Just Go With It aced an A-minus from CinemaScore's poll of exiting moviegoers, and an A from women. (Freud could not have imagined that the answer to his question "What do women want?" would be Adam Sandler.) The $80-million budget gave the picture a heavy price tag, but it looks to continue selling plenty of tickets, at least through tomorrow's Valentine's Day dinner-and-a-movie date blitz, and probably until someone comes up with another movie that adult couples want to see.

While adult women frolicked with Sandler and Aniston, young girls pilgrimaged to see the perpetually preadolescent Bieber — arguably the most gorgeous tween pop heartthrob to segue to movies since Ricky Nelson in rock's Stone Age (especially now that the Bieb has lost his baby fat). Two-thirds of the audience was under 25, and a lopsided 84% female; they gave the film a generous A, with mother-daughter combos rating it A-plus. Never Say Never earned just a bit less than Miley Cyrus's own 3-D concert film two years ago, and benefitted from its young star's recent omnipresence on TV: every morning show, Saturday Night Live, Letterman and The Daily Show. (Glee comes later.) Produced at a child-labor-discounted $13 million, and promoted for just $20 million, Never Say Never will be in profit by the time the Bieb turns 17 — March 1st.

Also contributing to the weekend revival was the year's first kid-aimed movie. The debut of Disney's 3-D cartoon Gnomeo & Juliet meant that moms no longer had to keep taking their kids back to Tangled and Yogi Bear. An update of Shakespeare's rom-dram, but featuring garden statuary instead of people, Gnomeo earned a rock-solid $25.5 million, leapfrogging insiders' predictions that it would land in the mid-teen millions.

The Disney film also lured a high percentage of girls, which left only The Eagle, the Caesars-era war epic, for the guys. And they didn't go; hardly anyone did. The film, starring Channing Tatum of G.I. Joe and Dear John, grossed a barbarous $8.6 million. Last week's chart-topper, The Roommate, placed fifth with $8.4 million.

Industry savants counted the weekend as a big win. Hollywood had endured a sad-sack early 2011, in which box-office revenue was down 28% from last year. No weekend had equaled the matching one from 2010. Until now — apparently. On the industry website The Wrap, Daniel Frankel wrote: "It was the first weekend so far in 2011 in which the box office was up year to year, with the domestic market surging 32 percent, according to one studio's estimate."

If that's the case, the surge did not come from the films at the head of the list. The top five finishers this weekend accounted for a projected $103.8 million, whereas last year's top five — Valentine's Day, The Wolfman, Percy Jackman & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Avatar and Dear John — earned a cumulative $158.7, or 53% more. By those numbers, the industry is still far behind last year's sensational first two months.

Oh, Avatar, how Hollywood misses you! Sandler and Bieber may be registering stratospheric numbers, but for really celestial heights, there's no place like Pandora.

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

1. Just Go With It, $31 million, first weekend
2. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, $30.3 million, first weekend
3. Gnomeo & Juliet< $25.5 million, first weekend
4. The Eagle, $8.6 million, first weekend
5. The Roommate, $8.4 million; $26.1 million, second week
6. The King's Speech, $7.4 million; $93.9 million, twelfth week
7. No Strings Attached, $5.6 million; $59.9 million, fourth week
8.Sanctum, $5.1 million; $17.5 million, second week
9.True Grit, $3.8 million; $160.3 million, eighth week
10.The Green Hornet, $3.6 million; $92.3 million, fifth week

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