By the Numbers: Aug. 31

That green-eyed monster called jealousy rears its ugly head this Labor Day weekend, but whether it scares off the competition hinges upon the very controversy that kept it under lock and key for two years.

Tim Blake Nelson‘s “O” became an indirect victim of the recent rash of high school-related killings, with a wary Miramax constantly delaying its release following one shooting incident after another. Nelson took legal action, and Miramax eventually handed the teen drama over to Lions Gate. The reason: Nelson all too faithfully re-stages Shakespeare’s Othello in a high school, with the deceit and treacherous unfolding on and off the basketball court with bloody consequences.

Though driven by a hip-hop soundtrack, and sporting a cast that includes teen heartthrobs Julia Stiles and Josh Hartnett, Nelson‘s “O” is a serious-minded and uncompromising adaptation of one of the Bard’s greatest plays. Anyone who has read or seen the play knows that it ends tragically. As does “O”, but not in a way that would summon up the terrible events at such schools as Columbine. Still, its climax proves the film’s undoing, because what worked in a Renaissance-era Venice does not seem applicable to a 21st-centruy South Carolinian high school.

Lions Gate is clearly hoping lightning will strike twice. It scored a $30.6 million hit in Dogma after obtaining Kevin Smith‘s satirical religious epic from Miramax.

Hartnett, surprisingly convincing as a modern-day Iago, is hot after Pearl Harbor. Stiles is already a Shakespearean poster girl for starring in The Taming of the Shrew-inspired 10 Things I Hate About You and the New York-set Hamlet. She also is once again playing the race card. Her MTV-ish interracial romance Save the Last Dance boogied its way to a $91 million in January. Despite the presence of both, “O” may have trouble so much as matching Save the Last Dance‘s $23.4 million opening during its entire run.

Compounding “O”‘s problems: a Labor Day weekend opening, a holiday notorious pathetically weak turnouts for new films; strong opposition in the form of lighthearted teen holdovers American Pie 2 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; and the arrival of the Francis Ford Coppola-executive produced horror yarn Jeepers Creepers.

Jeepers Creepers may have the edge over “O” by virtue that it will play in 2,900-plus theaters. “O” will go out in about 1,400-plus theaters.

Not that Jeepers Creepers is going to have an easy time this weekend. The best Labor Day weekend opening came in 1996, when The Crow: City of Angels experienced a less-than-soaring $8.3 million over the four-day weekend.

Jeepers Creepers also faces a formidable foe in the The Others, whose Sixth Sense-like surprises has propelled the Nicole Kidman chiller to $48.8 million through Wednesday. Still, Jeepers Creepers should have the edge over John Carpenter‘s horror/sci-fi hybrid Ghosts of Mars, which crashed last weekend with $3.8 million and has scared up only $4.9 million through Wednesday.

Even with weak competition in “O” and Jeepers Creepers, current box office champ American Pie 2 might not succeed in its bid to be the last year’s first film to enjoy its No. 1 status for four weeks. Rush Hour 2 reclaimed the box office top spot on Tuesday and Wednesday, with its total now at $186.9 million. The difference came down to a handful of dollars, but it nevertheless indicates that audiences might prefer to see Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker bust heads this weekend than watch Jason Biggs and Chris Klein try to score.

American Pie 2, with its total at $112 million through Wednesday, now ranks as one of those rare sequels to outgross–no pun intended–its predecessor. The same goes for Rush Hour 2, which could speed past $200 million this weekend.

Disney will reissue Pearl Harbor in the hope that the critically mauled World War II romance also will cross the $200 million barrier. Its total stands at $195.5 million. Disney also will give the animated Atlantis: The Lost Empire a second shot at glory. Atlantis‘ total: a disappointing $81.4 million.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back looks set to become Kevin Smith‘s biggest hit. The Hollywood spoof has generated $14.3 million through Wednesday, or just under half of what Dogma made in 1999.

Expect prompt disappearing acts from major flops Summer Catch, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Bubble Boy.

Also, Woody Allen‘s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion isn’t catching fire with anyone beyond his loyal followers. The screwball comedy opened last weekend in 902 theaters with a pitiful $2.4 million. In comparison, Small Time Crooks opened in May 2000 with $3.9 million at 865 theaters. Looks like Allen‘s been hit good and hard by a curse of his making.