Will “Funny People” be a sad clown at the box office?

Whatever my reaction to it winds up being when I finally see “Funny People,” Judd Apatow has my respect. As a producer, writer, and sometime director of mostly R-rated comedies, he’s enjoyed a level of unusually consistent box office and artistic/critical success over a large number of movies that only Pixar, which takes much longer to make its very different brand of crowd-pleaser, can top right now.

Making good movies requires taking risks, and Apatow is taking one right now with a film that is being described as a tragicomedy and with his only hedge being a cast dominated by popular comic actors led by Adam Sandler. That the film seems to be largely dividing critics and generating confused reactions would, if I were Apatow or Universal, make me a little nervous. Actually, Universal may be more nervous than Apatow. As Nikki Finke and everyone else is reporting tonight, the hyphenate comedy guy just inked a 3-picture deal with them, so he’s set for the time being.

Variety‘s Dave McNary reports that box office predictions vary pretty widely for the film, from the low twenty millions to the mid-thirties. No wonder. A casual look around the wilds of Rotten Tomatoes indicates that the Apatow’s third feature as a director after “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” is far different piece of work and what you might call “difficult.” As far as I can remember, this has almost never indicated an immediate box office success — better to have critics universally detest the movie, it seems, than be conflicted. Movies that elicit this kind of reaction have more than once emerged years later as cult hits or even, as in the case of “Blade Runner,” legitimate classics. On the other hand, Adam Sandler’s name will count for something, and the presence of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, among others, certainly won’t hurt. But, on the other other hand, we’ve seen the power of stars amount to less than expected results more than once over the last year or so.

It’s really anyone’s guess. As far as I know, no one’s even touched the subject of the real life of comedians since 1988’s “Punchline,” which I caught up with recently as part of Bullz-Eye feature on Tom Hanks. An intriguing but flawed drama, the film came in at #47 in the yearly box office despite the presence of Hanks and Sally Field at the height of her popularity. On the other hand, the one thing that film lacked almost entirely was laughs. I gather that’s not so much the problem here. Apatow’s penchant for making the world’s longest comedies, however, might be.

Adam Sandler in more My record for accuracy in predicting box office rivals Bill Kristol’s accuracy in all matters, but I will say that one key variable may be how much the audience is prepared for a real departure with this film. If they walk in expecting “Billy Madison,” the Twittering masses will render Apatow and Universal box office toast within 24 hours. Despite being a solid and only slightly unusual comedy, 2006’s “Stranger than Fiction,” which deserved much better, suffered because audiences were expecting “a Will Ferrell movie,” not a quirky and surreal, if also rather low key and old school, comedy

There are two other major releases this week, but they won’t be competing for the same audiences as “Funny People” and both have been sequestered from critics. No one I know of has seen “Aliens in the Attic,” a blend of live-action and animation that seeks to combine kid-friendly science fiction and action with slapstick comedy. Despite the spectacle of Doris Roberts (Ray Romano’s TV mom and a really fine actress) doing CGI kung-fu, even the trailer doesn’t deliver on laughs or much of anything other than ugly character designs. Expectations are suitably modest even though the film will be showing in a few more theaters (3,106) than “Funny People” (3,008).

A couple of horror bloggers, who rather liked it, and two other writers, who didn’t, are the only critics who have discussed it as of this writing, but the week’s other release seems targeted at very hard-core horror fans. Not to be confused with John Fowles’ novel or William Wyler’s 1965 film version of the same, “The Collector” is being touted as coming from two of the writers of some of the more recent “Saw” films and has a completely star-free cast. It’s in a relatively small number of theaters (1,325) so this is clearly a case of a low budget flick being targeted at the primarily young and male audience that digs the kind of film unfairly or otherwise tagged as “torture porn.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel talk among pillowsOther than that, the big news this week is increasing theater counts. That includes 48 new screens (mostly Imax and “digital Imax,” i.e., “liemax” screens, I presume) for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” which might help that film’s below expectations domestic take. The sleeperish romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer” more than triples its theater count this week and will be on 266 screens. And the buzz-heavy “In the Loop,” which I noted earlier in the week, will now be on 35 screens.

However, the initially limited release flick that is likely to be the biggest deal by far is Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.” This week our own David Medsker joins the general chorus of praise for this Iraq war bomb-disposal thriller (unexploded munitions movies being a surprisingly robust sub-sub-genre over the decades), which has been generating very strong buzz for weeks and even some Oscar talk. As of tomorrow, it will burst into a total of 523 theaters.

  

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