Is the whisk mightier than the sword?

[13 August 2009]

By Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

If you just look at the box office take, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” stomped all over “Julie & Julia” last weekend.

“Joe” earned $54.7 million in the United States — the fourth-biggest debut ever in August. The second-place “J&J” pulled in $20 million.

No contest, right?

And yet “Julie & Julia” is holding its own. In fact, I’d say that things are working out just as they should.

Certainly in terms of artistry, Nora Ephron’s movie — it melds the story of cook Julia Child with that of the woman who sets out to reproduce all of Child’s recipes — hit my sweet spot. It’s a really good film with yet another transcendent performance by Meryl Streep. Expect Oscar nominations.

I cannot speak to the quality of “G.I. Joe,” which was not screened for critics (apparently this is the new standard operating procedure for any movie based on a line of toys). The consensus is that it’s not a disaster.

“G.I. Joe” performed just about the way you’d expect from a movie aimed at an audience of teens and young men. This is a demographic that has to see this weekend’s big action movie so as to maintain bragging rights on Monday.

But that also means that business for movies like “Joe” drops off precipitously after the opening weekend — usually attendance falls 60 percent in the second week.

What impresses me about “J&J’s” $20 million take (it opened on 2,3 54 screens compared to “Joe’s” 4,007) is that this is a film aimed at an audience — grown-ups, especially women — who don’t typically race out to see a movie on opening weekend.

Even for a film they’re really interested in, adult moviegoers bide their time.

I know this because of outraged phone calls I get from readers who planned to see a film but waited so long that the movie left town. Now they’re angry because the Romanian documentary about rural idiots savant they were interested in played here for only three weeks.

My gut tells me that the audience that did go see “Julia” last weekend was only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, this could be one of those rare movies whose weekend takes increase over time. If nothing else, the film’s second-week dip will be a smaller percentage than that of other films this summer.

And then there’s the bottom line. “G.I. Joe” cost a lot to make — about $170 million according to some industry analysts. Splashy special effects don’t come cheap.

The only special effects in “Julie & Julia” were the platform shoes that made Streep look 6 -foot-2. Its budget was a modest $40 million.

The good news is that both films are well on the way to breaking even. “Joe’s” bottom line is considerably strengthened by the additional $43 million business it did in foreign markets. This is the genius of the new Hollywood — it gravitates toward movies where language is irrelevant and which can be appreciated by action-oriented audiences around the globe.

Actually there are two Hollywoods out there, coexisting.

There’s the mass kid-and-young-man-oriented Hollywood that dishes sound and fury with films like “Joe.” And then there’s the more humanistic Hollywood of “Julie & Julia.”

As long as we have a choice, I’m satisfied.

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