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Weekend box office preview — how high will “Iron Man 2″ fly?

“Pretty high” is the obvious answer. As I write this, the first midnight shows are just finishing up the trailers on the East Coast, fanboys are queuing up in the Midwest, and their West Coast brethren are enjoying their pre-film burgers and Red Bull, but as far as everyone seems to be concerned, the sequel to the surprise “four quadrant” mega-blockbuster of 2008 is already a massive hit.  “Iron Man 2” has been booked into a record number of theaters, 4,380 according to Box Office Mojo.

Robert Downey Jr. in

Moreover, Nikki Finke is reporting that the film has already earned $132 million from 53 assorted countries where it has already opened. The summer solstice is more than six weeks away, but summer-time film madness is, we are informed, very much upon us. (Just btw, Anthony D’Alessandro offers a brief historical look at the outward creep of the summer movie season over the last couple of decades.)

So, the question remains, just how many millions will the second film about billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) fetch. Will it beat the record $158.4 million opening of “The Dark Knight” and crack $160 mill? Or, will it get a mere $140 million or so and send everyone to the immensely well appointed and hugely relative poor house? That seems to be the floor being offered up by the various gurus, including Ben Fritz of the L.A. Times‘ Company Town blog and THR’s jolly Carl DiOrio, who characteristically seems to be leaning slightly towards the possibility of a huge opening for Marvel and Paramount.

Nevertheless, there is a small dark cloud here and that’s the general perception, at least among us press types — who are, I remind you again, people too — that “Iron Man 2″ is, while not at all bad, also not as good as the first one. This is a rare case where I’ve actually seen the week’s big movie in advance myself and, quality wise, I’m seeing this one as a glass-half-empty. For me, the story simply fails to find a strong emotional connection between Tony Stark’s troubles and the various threats he’s facing. It all feels a bit vague and disconnected despite director Jon Favreau’s way with humor, mostly good acting, and some very decent action scenes.

Indeed, while the film’s current 68% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes is not at all bad, especially for an action flick, it’s a fairly precipitous drop from the outstanding 93% rating the first film garnered. It rating among “top critics” is an even more disappointing 61%. Taking a closer look, there’s a muted quality and less of a difference between the thumbs-up and thumbs-down reviews than you might think. Our own Jason Zingale (linked to above) might have liked the film better than me, but reading his review, it’s a matter of emphasis and personal quirk.

Don Cheadle and Sam Rockwell in For example. I, and also CHUD-meister Devin Faraci, missed Terrence Howard, who was replaced on this film by the Don Cheadle, an actor who is at least as strong a performer as Howard is over all, but one with very different qualities. For some of us, he just doesn’t come across quite as strongly as James “Rhodey” Rhodes.  As Faraci puts it:

…he’s just slightly too straight and stolid and good to be fully believable as Tony’s best friend. Terence Howard has taken a ride on the Stark jet to Tijuana while Don Cheadle politely begs out of such an expedition.

Jason, on the other hand, didn’t miss Howard at all, but these are all fairly minor matters. This is a movie that no one really hates and no one I know of yet really adores and that’s why I think it makes some sense to look at reviews in a box office context for a movie that is most certainly as review proof as they get. I think most audience members will like it, but I doubt many will see it multiple times. My own prediction is that a huge opening weekend will mainly mean a big drop-off later on. A more muted opening weekend will likely be a bit more leggy as the film skates by on its fairly modest, but very real, assets. I’ll be surprised if generates the kind of love a critical and popular smash like “The Dark Knight” or “Avatar” gets. Either way, though, we’re looking at a very nice pay day, just maybe not the uber-mammoth one some excitable folks are talking about.

One factor that may mean a slightly smaller opening weekend is that this Sunday, lest any of you forget, is Mother’s Day. Sure, there are some geek-friendly moms out there, but I really wonder how many would actively choose “Iron Man 2″ as the movie they’d choose to see on their special day. That, I’m sure, is the logic behind releasing “Babies” this weekend. I mean, what could possibly be more motherly? Not quite a wide release, it’s going into 534 theaters and apparently the cute factor here is, as the title might lead you to believe, simply off the charts. Still, all I need to do is go to YouTube and enter “cute babies and adorable little kitty cats” and I get that factor pretty much for free, but then, I’m not a mom. Similarly, the well-reviewed “Mother and Child” is another themed release. The latest from indie-mainstay director Rodrigo Garcia, this all-star drama features Anette Benning, Naomi Watts, and Kerry Washington and will be showing up in six theaters in NYC and L.A., according to the Numbers.

In another interesting bit of counterprogramming, Summit Entertainment, will be sneaking the romantic drama “Letters to Juliet,” starring up-and-coming it-girl Amanda Seyfried and acting great Vanessa Redgrave, in over 880 theaters on Sunday. It’s a clever way to get around the giant road-block that is “Iron Man 2″ to try to milk some shekels out of the Mom’s Day tradition of trying to make up for whatever we did wrong the rest of the year by doing whatever mom wants.

There is actually too much action for me to detail among smaller releases this week. A certain horror film I still refuse to even name is expanding into 17 theaters, and I do want to mention yet another sequel — but not just any sequel. “OSS 117: Lost in Rio” is opening in three theaters, two here in Cali and one up in NYC, and those of us who saw the clever French spy spoof  “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” know what the scoop is there, especially the genius of star Jean Dujardin. It’s one part Inspector Clouseau by way of Maxwell Smart and Steven Martin, one part the French spy equivalent of “Black Dynamite.” (For more, my equally spy-loving friend, Randy Reynaldo, wrote about “Cairo, Nest of Spies” a couple of years back.)

Finally, opening in nine theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and, for obvious reasons, Washington D.C., is “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” from Oscar-winning super-documentarian Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side“). I was slightly disappointed with this detailed look at lobbyists gone wild, given Gibney’s other political films, though there’s plenty to recommend it. However, critics in general seem quite taken and it’s an important and very timely topic. If mom is a political junkie and doesn’t mind being told her entire government is for sale to the highest bidder, you could do a lot worse.

Jack Abramoff in

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