Is Steve Martin the new Jim Carrey? ''Bringing Down the House'' charged into movie theaters this weekend earning $31.7 million, becoming one of the biggest March debuts ever and topping the $31.4 million opening of Carrey's smash ''Liar Liar'' from five years ago.
''House,'' about a lawyer who accidentally sets up a blind date with a convict (Queen Latifah), earned mostly poor reviews from critics but obviously scored with audiences eager for an odd-couple pairing. (CinemaScore fans gave the film a decent B+ grade.) The casting of Martin and Latifah helped bring in moviegoers of all ages and races, which accounts for its much-better-than-anticipated debut. The film also benefitted from the dual Oscar-related publicity both stars are receiving: Martin is this year's host of the telecast, and Latifah is a supporting-actress nominee for ''Chicago.'' The result is by far Martin's best opening ever.
Far back in second place was the week's other new wide release, ''Tears of the Sun,'' with $17.2 million. A NAVY S.E.A.L. drama starring Bruce Willis, the film hoped to bring in similar numbers to the recent war thriller ''Black Hawk Down,'' which had a wide-release debut of $28.6 million. But although ''Tears'' boasts bigger star power (''Black Hawk'''s leads were Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor), the film's tepid, vague title did little to peak audiences' interest.
Third place went to the hit comedy ''Old School,'' which earned another $9.3 million, down 34 percent from last week. The adult-fraternity film, starring Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson, and Vince Vaughn, has now grossed $50.8 million in its first three weeks. Holding on even better was ''Chicago,'' in fourth place with $7 million, a decline of only 12 percent. The Oscar-nominated film has now reached $114.6 million. And Kate Hudson's romance ''How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days'' remained in the top five with $6.8 million, bringing its total to a fantastic $87 million. At this rate, ''How to Lose'' will end up outgrossing the latest romances from Jennifer Lopez (''Maid in Manhattan'') and Sandra Bullock (''Two Weeks Notice'').
All this means that last week's top film, the Jet Li/DMX action thriller ''Cradle 2 the Grave,'' fell out of the top five, plunging 60 percent to $6.6 million, good enough for sixth place. To the grave, indeed.