Limitless, the science-fiction thriller about a guy who takes a drug that makes him super-intelligent, unexpectedly topped the box office last weekend, with an $18.9-million take. With its budget of just $27-million, the movie is well on its way to turning a profit. That should mean more movies like Limitless, fewer like Battle: Los Angeles in the theatres, if Hollywood is paying attention.
Last Monday's box-office pundits tried to credit the film's opening success to star Bradley Cooper's appeal, but that explanation is doubtful. Cooper, who is now 36, didn't exactly set the box office on fire with All About Steve or The A Team, both released after his breakthrough comedy, The Hangover.
A better explanation is that audiences were attracted to the film's plot, as advertised in its trailer. Cooper plays a writer who takes a pill that makes him very smart, more sexy, creative and rich. Imagine having heightened focus and energy, the ability to instantly learn a musical instrument or a couple of languages. These skills seem more interesting than, say, throwing a sticky spider web over a criminal or leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
In short, Limitless made a shameless appeal to the audience's interest in intelligence. The movie isn't a singular case. Rango, Gore Verbinski's animated western about a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) lost in a world of varmints, came in second place overall at this past weekend's box office. Rango, which has earned about $167-million at the box office in the past three weeks, is rich and weird, full of sardonic dialogue and allusions to other films. Perhaps the most common adjective in reviews of the film is that it is "smart."
Of course, Limitless and Rango are commercially at the head of a badly under-performing class. The overall domestic box office dipped again this weekend, down 9 per cent from the same weekend last year, and the fourth straight weekend that box-office receipts were down from a year ago. At this point, this is beginning to look more like an overall decline than a mere cyclical slump. You'd think there could be a teaching moment.
The overall recent pattern suggests that, while attendance is down, audiences think smart movies are worth paying for. Inception, with its brain-twisting plot turns, was an $800-million plus blockbuster. Several of the Oscar nominees - The King's Speech, Black Swan, The Social Network, The Fighter, True Grit - were both intelligent and commercial, earning around $1.25-billion in worldwide grosses.
As Variety columnist Peter Bart wrote of those movies in early December, "If there's a billion-dollar market out there for art pictures, that might provide a good reason to reassess the audience and realign studio spending."
Instead, Hollywood studios seem determined to double up on what isn't working. This summer, we'll see a record number of 27 sequels being released, which, almost by definition, won't offer many fresh ideas.
"All men, by nature, desire to know," wrote Aristotle, a famously pretty smart guy, though he never ran a studio. The point holds - intellectual curiosity is a basic motivation, not an obstacle. Even as Hollywood's offerings are increasingly predictable, audiences are showing they're alert to the exceptions, to those movies that still remind us of the medium's limitless potential.
OPENING NEXT WEEK
Essential Killing (opens Thursday) A bearded fighter named Mohammad (Vincent Gallo) is captured by American troops and shipped to a frozen, unidentified European country. The film won a special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and a best-acting award for Gallo.
HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE Josh Radnor of the CBS show How I Met Your Mother stars as a novelist who finds himself the unexpected guardian of a young boy.
Hop In this mixture of live-action and animated film, a slacker (James Marsden) inadvertently runs into the Easter Bunny (voiced by Russell Brand) and must take care of him.
Insidious Director James Wan ( Saw) directs this horror movie about a couple (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) who move into a new home and attempt to stop an evil spirit from stealing the soul of their comatose child.
La Nostra Vita An Italian construction worker, suddenly widowed, comes up with a scheme to make money. Star Elio Germano won a best-actor prize at Cannes for his performance.
Monogamy A Brooklyn photographer (Chris Messina), anxious about his upcoming marriage (to Rashida Jones) secretly photographs clients and becomes obsessed with one exhibitionistic woman.
Exit 67 An eight-year-old boy sees his mother murdered by his father and ends up becoming involved in a gang in this film from Quebec director Jephté Bastien.
Source Code Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier who wakes up in the body of a stranger and discovers he's part of a mission to bomb a Chicago train. With Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga.
Winter in Wartime In the last months of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, a young boy tries to keep an English pilot out of German hands in this thriller, which set domestic box-office records in Holland.
Wrecked A man trapped in his car at the bottom of a ravine must find a way to escape. With Adrien Brody and Caroline Dhavernas.