Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.
Red Dragon captured first place with a fiery $37.5 million, the biggest opening ever in the month of October.
Sweet Home Alabama was a charming second with $21.6 million.
The Tuxedo was a well pressed third with $10.1 million.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding was fourth with $8.5 million, down only 10 percent. With a cume of $148 million now, it's heading for an astounding $175 million.
Barbershop was still something to talk about in fifth place with $6.8 million.
Driven by Dragon, key films were up 23.5 percent over last year -- $107.3 million versus $86.8 million. It was the first time an October weekend has grossed over $100 million.
THE TOP TEN
Universal and Dino De Laurentiis's R rated thriller Red Dragon, presented in association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, opened in first place to a record setting ESTIMATED $37.48 million at 3,357 theaters ($11,165 per theater).
Dragon's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Brett Ratner, it stars Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
"This is the biggest October opening ever. Until now the record was (Universal's) Meet the Parents at $28.6 million (the weekend of Oct. 6-8, 2000)," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning.
"It's the biggest R rated fall opening ever. Before this, it was (Warner Bros.') Interview With the Vampire (the weekend of Nov. 11-13, 1994 with) $36.4 million. To have a $37.5 million opening at this time of year is very extraordinary. For the business, itself, to break over $100 million at the box office this weekend is extraordinary. And you have to credit this film for that. It's never been done. There's never been a $100 million weekend in October."
Looking at the film's opening, Rocco noted, "Our expectations were fulfilled. We are very excited about the opening. I think the word of mouth is extraordinary. The CinemaScores were very, very strong. The exit polls are very strong. I think word of mouth is going to be exceptional on the film and I think the picture's going to have legs. When $37 million worth of audience starts to talk about how great this movie is, there's no doubt that it will be the choice for the fall."
Rocco applauded Ratner "for creating this masterpiece. And I think that Dino and Martha DeLaurentiis have to be acknowledged for having the ability to continue the Hannibal Lecter story -- developing it and producing a film that moviegoers want to see about Hannibal Lecter. It goes without saying that Anthony Hopkins is such an extraordinary talent and I give him (great) credit for this classic and chilling character that he (brought to life) that's captured the moviegoing audience's attention for more than a decade."
Who was on hand opening weekend? "Believe it or not, on Saturday night it was evenly divided (in terms of) the age of 30 -- 51 percent under 30 and 49 percent over 30. It was exactly 50-50 on males-females."
Dragon should benefit in terms of word of mouth from the fact that while it is scary, it's not gruesome or gory. Hannibal was difficult for some moviegoers to look at, but Dragon is a more accessible movie, especially to adults and to women in general. Hannibal kicked off via MGM to $58 million the weekend of Feb. 9-11, 2001 and went on to gross approximately $165 million in domestic theaters.
Asked about those who were speculating that Dragon would open in line with Hannibal, Rocco emphasized that Dragon is "not a sequel. It's not a sequel to Hannibal. It's not a sequel to Silence of the Lambs. So, therefore, the expectations shouldn't have been that it would play like a sequel."
Buena Vista/Touchstone's PG-13 rated romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama fell one peg to second place in its second week, showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $21.6 million (-39%) at 3,303 theaters (+10 theaters; $6,541 per theater). Its cume is approximately $65.6 million.
Directed by Andy Tennant, it stars Reese Witherspoon and Josh Lucas.
DreamWorks' PG-13 action comedy The Tuxedo slipped one rung to third place in its second week, holding nicely with an ESTIMATED $10.1 million (-33%) at 3,022 theaters (theater count unchanged; $3,341 per theater). Its cume is approximately $28.1 million.
Directed by Kevin Donovan, it stars Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Films' release of Gold Circle Films and HBO's PG rated romantic comedy blockbuster My Big Fat Greek Wedding held on to fourth place in its 25th week, continuing to show amazingly strong legs with an ESTIMATED $8.48 million (-10%) at 1,971 theaters (+130 theaters; $4,304 per theater). Its cume is approximately $148.0 million, heading for $175 million in domestic theaters.
Wedding has now passed the $140.5 million record set by Artisan Entertainment's The Blair Witch Project and ranks as the top grossing independent film ever at the domestic office.
Directed by Joel Zwick, it stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett.
"Down 10 percent in week 25!" IFC distribution president Rob Schwartz said Sunday morning. "I'm thinking at least $175 million at this point. We'll have to revisit it after next week. Next week (with so many new films coming into the marketplace) makes me a little nervous, but if this film holds true to form, everyone who opens next week is going to do what they do and maybe take a little steam off of us, but then they'll start dropping off or falling behind us pretty quickly. So I wouldn't put $175 million out of reach at all. I think that's a realistic number."
Asked about the buzz in Hollywood that Greek Wedding looks like a contender for Golden Globe and Oscar attention in various key categories, Schwartz agreed, "I think there are a lot of possibilities out there. It's definitely something that's being strategically hashed out right now."
Assessing the film's success, Schwartz noted, "I think it's really the universality of the picture and that it speaks to everyone. Everyone loves it. It could be My Big Fat Italian Wedding, My Big Fat Irish Wedding, My Big Fat Jewish Wedding. It speaks to everyone the same way. It's just universal the way it touches people. The timing was just right for this kind of film.
"Everything was about Star Wars and Spider-Man this summer and the big blockbusters, as per usual. This was the only thing for a while in its demographic. It was just a nice mainstream type of film that people hadn't been seeing in a while. Studios and independents alike have been taking care to provide something edgy or different and it looks like the audience just wanted to see something normal, something that they could relate to."
MGM's PG-13 rated urban appeal comedy Barbershop dropped two notches to fifth place in its fourth week, still looking good with an ESTIMATED $6.8 million (-32%) at 2,176 theaters (+125 theaters; $3,125 per theater). Its cume is approximately $60.2 million, heading for $75-80 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Tim Story, it stars Ice Cube, Anthony Anderson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Eve and Cedric The Entertainer.
The G rated animated feature Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie from Artisan's FHE Pictures and Big Idea Productions opened in sixth place to a very ripe ESTIMATED $6.5 million at 940 theaters ($6,915 per theater).
Directed by Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki, it was produced by Ameake Owens.
"We're remarkably happy with these results," Artisan distribution head Steve Rothenberg said Sunday morning.
Jonah's strong showing in sixth place, he said, "is remarkable given that most of the films we're around have two, three or four times the number of screens we've got. So clearly we performed at a number that we're very happy with."
Asked about the film's release at only 940 theaters, Rothenberg explained, "We tried to be very strategic with our plan. The reason we went with 940 is that when we analyzed the (big selling) videos that the series is based on -- they've been around for about 10 years -- they didn't have very good penetration in the northeast. So we decided we would put all our concentration of marketing dollars and promotional effort with church groups and other organizations in the south, the mid-west and the west, where the strength had been.
"So we didn't open the New York branch, the Boston branch, the Philly branch, the D.C. branch. Now that the success is obviously there, we're going to expand on Oct. 18. We're going to take a break this weekend -- as you know, it's suicidal. There are six movies that I show that are going (to open) with at least 1,000 or more screens. It's going to be crazy out there. On the 18th, we're going to come into the northeast and give it a shot there."
Focusing on Jonah, he said, "These are animated vegetables. A series of recurring characters over the last decade that (were created by) Big Ideas. Essentially what they do is tell Bible stories, but they do them with a Monty Pythonesque sense of humor. It's really a very brilliant marketing ploy because they can now get families to sit and watch them. Kids like them because they're singing and dancing vegetables that tell simple Bible stories, but the adults can be entertained because the humor is very Pythonesque and will make you laugh out loud as an adult. It's their first foray into features and clearly their fan base came out in droves.
"The exit polls were very encouraging. They basically confirmed what our research screenings in the past had showed, which is that the fans loved the movie. The people who see this film are loving it because it's an expanded version of what they've seen in the videos with beautiful CGI animation. The numbers were absolutely wonderful so we know that the people who saw it will like it and now we're just hoping they'll spread the word to the people who are 'non-converted,' who don't know about the series but certainly are in search of good family entertainment."
Artisan's timing was good, as well, he added: "We specifically planned not to go in the summer. We knew the summer was crazy with kids' films once a week. We didn't want to go in September for two reasons. Number one, we wanted some distance between the summer films. And, secondly, back-to-school time is probably the worst time to come out with family stuff.
"We figured Oct. 4 would be a great time to go. It would get us out of that September period and give us a six or seven week cushion from the last youth oriented film, which was Spy Kids 2. (We felt) the timing was right, the marketplace was ready and, clearly, at least initially the numbers back that up."
Fox Searchlight Pictures' R rated low budget comedy The Banger Sisters fell two rungs to seventh place in its third week with a dull ESTIMATED $3.57 million (-34%) at 2,530 theaters (-208 theaters; $1,411 per theater). Its cume is approximately $24.4 million.
Written and directed by Bob Dolman, it stars Goldie Hawn, Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush.
Paramount and Miramax's PG-13 rated very expensive romantic epic The Four Feathers slipped two rungs in its third week to eighth place with a very disappointing ESTIMATED $2.1 million (-41%) at 2,187 theaters (theater count unchanged; $953 per theater). Its cume is approximately $15.6 million.
Directed by Shekhar Kapur, it stars Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley and Kate Hudson.
Buena Vista/Touchstone's PG-13 rated drama Moonlight Mile went wider in its second week, placing ninth with an encouraging ESTIMATED $2.0 million at 434 theaters (+412 theaters; $4,614 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.4 million.
Written and directed by Brad Silberling, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter.
Rounding out the Top 10 was Fox Searchlight Pictures' R rated low budget thriller One Hour Photo, down three slots in its seventh week with a calm ESTIMATED $1.72 million (-43%) at 1,261 theaters (-46 theaters; $1,364 per theater). Its cume is approximately $28.8 million.
Written and directed by Mark Romanek, it stars Robin Williams.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Warner Bros.' R rated crime comedy Welcome to Collinwood to a hopeful ESTIMATED $82,000 at 16 theaters ($5,125 per theater).
Written and directed by Anthony & Joe Russo, it stars William H. Macy, Isaiah Washington and Sam Rockwell.
"This movie was produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh and their company Section Eight," Warner Bros. Distribution executive vice president Jeff Goldstein said Sunday morning.
"They've made money available to young upcoming writers and directors. The writer and director (of Collinwood) are two brothers, Joe and Anthony Russo, and this is their debut. They're solid numbers -- nice and strong. We're in five different markets and it's a nice specialized film for a specialized market. We feel good about the numbers."
Will Warners go wider with the film? "We had originally set it for (expansion on) Oct. 18," Goldstein replied. "So between Oct. 18 and 25, we're going to roll out other markets."
Miramax's R rated thriller Heaven opened to an encouraging ESTIMATED $54,000 at 4 theaters ($13,500 per theater).
Directed by Tom Tykwer, it stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend Buena Vista/ Disney's PG rated animated feature Spirited Away went wider in its third week with an encouraging ESTIMATED $0.63 million at 97 theaters (+44 theaters; $6,492 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.9 million.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, it was the Golden Bear best picture winner at the Berlin International Film Festival. Spirited is the all-time top grossing film at the Japanese box office.
United Artists' R rated dark comedy Igby Goes Down expanded quietly in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $0.51 million (-17%) at 147 theaters (+26 theaters; $3,443 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.7 million.
Written and directed by Burr Steers, it stars Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes, Jeff Goldblum, Jared Harris, Amanda Peet, Ryan Phillippe, Bill Pullman and Susan Sarandon.
Lions Gate Films' R rated kinky romance Secretary expanded in its third week with an attractive ESTIMATED $0.38 million (+4%) at 101 theaters (+48 theaters; $3,730 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Directed by Steven Shainberg, it stars James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Focus Features' R rated French comedic whodunit 8 Women expanded in its third week with a still charming ESTIMATED $0.36 million (+17%) at 82 theaters (+25 theaters; $4,380 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Directed by Francois Ozon, it stars Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $107.25 million for the weekend, up about 23.53 percent from last year when they totaled $86.82 million.
Key films were up about 11.91 percent from the previous weekend this year when they totaled $95.84 million.
Last year, Warner Bros.' opening week of Training Day was first with $22.55 million at 2,712 theaters ($8,315 per theater); and Miramax's opening week of Serendipity was second with $13.31 million at 2,601 theaters ($5,117 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $35.9 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $59.1 million.