By the Numbers: Sept. 28

The unenviable task of making a shocked nation laugh again falls on the less-than-broad shoulders of one very stupid male model.

Zoolander, a sketch character-inspired comedy starring and directed by Ben Stiller, should emerge as the victor among a trio of high-profile films destined to give a depressed box office a much-needed boost. Stiller takes on Michael Douglas in the thriller Don’t Say a Word and Anthony Hopkins in the adaptation of Stephen King‘s Hearts in Atlantis.

Stiller stars as Derek Zoolander, a dimwitted clotheshorse embroiled in an assassination plot masterminded by an evil fashion designer (the ubiquitous Will Ferrell).

Zoolander first took to the catwalk as comic relief during the 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. Not that this is necessarily the foundation of a hit comedy. Audiences consistently reject such films because they fail to generate more laughs than the five-minute skit upon which they are based. Just ask Ferrell, who starred in such Saturday Night Live-orignated comic catastrophes as Superstar ($30.6 million), A Night at the Roxbury ($30.3 million), and The Ladies Man ($13.5 million).

Yet the odds are very much in Stiller‘s favor for a run(a)way smash. Zoolander isn’t a household name like some SNL characters, so the comedy should be assessed on its strengths and weaknesses. Also, Zoolander represents Stiller‘s first film since Meet the Parents, which opened last fall with $28.6 million before eventually collecting $166.2 million. Zoolander isn’t likely to open as big, but it should match or exceed the $13.7 million of Stiller‘s 1998 sleeper, There’s Something About Mary.

The lack of any other significant competition should ensure a big turnout for Michael DouglasDon’t Say a Word. Douglas once again plays a workaholic thrust into extraordinary circumstances, a formula that resulted in the hits Fatal Attraction, Traffic, Disclosure and, to a lesser extent, Falling Down and The Game. This time, Douglas is a therapist who must extract information from a seemingly catatonic patient (Brittany Murphy) in exchange for his kidnapped daughter.

Don’t Say a Word should fall somewhere between the opening takes of The Game ($14.3 million), Traffic ($15.7 million). Business, however, could plummet should audiences reject the thriller’s midpoint shift from its cerebral cat-and-mouse games to a downright absurd and poorly executed violent thriller.

Stephen King may sell millions of books, but his name alone doesn’t guarantee that audiences will flock to see films based on his vast array of works. His undiluted tales of terrors spawned such disappointments as Thinner, Children of the Corn and Silver Bullet. In recent years, though, films based on his reality- or fantasy-rooted books have been warmly received critically and/or commercially. The Shawshank Redemption garnered six Oscar nominations, but managed to make a very modest $28.2 million. The Green Mile, starring Tom Hanks, making $136 million in addition to receiving three Oscar nominations.

This bodes well for Hearts in Atlantis, which, like The Green Mile, is tinged with supernatural elements. Anthony Hopkins stars as an enigmatic man who turns up out of nowhere to help a young boy and his widowed mother.

Hearts in Atlantis cannot even hope to arouse the same interest as HopkinsHannibal, which opened in February with $58 million. But count on Hopkins‘ presence to ensure that Hearts in Atlantis will experience a warm welcome, though nowhere close to the $18 million The Green Mile made in December 1999.

Also, director Scott Hicks could use a hit. His Shine broke out of art-house theaters in 1997 to become a $35.8 million. His adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars earned only $14.4 million after being buried by an avalanche of indifferent reviews.

The triple threat of Zoolander, Don’t Say a Word and Hearts in Atlantis will see audiences return to theaters en masse after grosses dropped last weekend to its lowest since September 2000.

This also means that old staples Rush Hour 2 ($216.8 million), American Pie 2 ($140.5 million), The Others ($81.9 million) and Rat Race ($52.4 million) will no longer be called upon to prop up a sagging box office. New releases–such as The Musketeer ($23.7 million), Two Can Play That Game ($19 million), Rock Star ($15.9 million) and The Glass House ($12.9 million)– have failed to provide much comfort to an America rocked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Only Keanu ReevesHardball is turning to be something of a base hit. The family friendly Little League-set drama dropped only $14 percent in its second weekend, from $9.3 million to $8 million. Its total is $21.1 million through Thursday. Reeves could enjoy his biggest post-Matrix success if audiences continue to play Hardball.

Displaying a Sixth Sense-like tenacity, The Others enjoyed a remarkable 11 percent increase in takings in its seventh week, from $4.5 million to $5 million. The Nicole Kidman chiller likely could scream its way to $100 million. Regardless, The Others ranks as Kidman’s biggest hit since Batman Forever.

Legally Blonde is positioning itself as a potential $100 million candidate. Reese Witherspoon‘s bubbly legal spoof saw its screen count double last weekend, from 649 to 1304, in an effort to provide audiences a lighthearted distraction from the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Earnings increased 74 percent from $764,000 to $1.3 million. Legally Blonde‘s total now stands at $92.1 million.

The Christian-themed Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 looks set to join its predecessor as an unlikely and unheralded surprise hit. Megiddo opened last weekend with $1.5 million at 315 sites; The Omega Code made $2.4 million at 305 sites in October 1999. Megiddo lost a number of sites prior to its release because of its occasional Armageddon-styled scenes of destruction. It may not surpass The Omega Code‘s eventual $12.6 million total, but it has a good shot at a long run in limited release.

The same cannot be said for Mariah Carey‘s Glitter. Carey couldn’t generate much sympathy for her recent health problems, as her oft-delayed starring debut opened at 1,202 sites to a tuneless $2.4 million. That could effectively cut short any aspirations that Carey has of conquering Hollywood. Judging by the lousy reviews, that’s music to our ears.