Misguided movie populists who say that critics are somehow less relevant than they were 20 years ago and that their reaction in no way tracks the reaction of other human beings should really take a close look at this weekend’s results. It’s an eternal truth that audiences and critics often differ — seeing a lot of movies does tend to make a person somewhat harder to please — but to say that there’s zero correlation between what most critics hate or love and what most audiences members hate or love is not the case. It is true that critics hated, hated, hated this weekend’s #1 film, but that clearly isn’t the entire story.

Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner don't look happyAs I recounted prior to the start of the long Christmas holiday frame last Tuesday, the oracles of the box office were predicting a reaction to “Little Fockers” somewhat in line with the 2004 performance of “Meet the Fockers.” Specifically, the numbers being bandied about were in the $60 or $70 million range for the entire five day period. The total gross instead appears to be roughly $48.3 million for Universal. That is only a couple of million higher than what “Meet the Fockers” earned over a three day period on its Christmas opening in 2004. Remember, movie ticket prices have gone up a few bucks since ’04.

Nikki Finke recounts how the megastar-laden film’s difficult and expensive $100 million production, helmed by the currently luck-challenged Chris Weitz, provided a windfall for Dustin Hoffman and, I understand, allowed him to almost literally phone-in large portions of his performance. Finke estimates that the lastest “Fockers” movie is earning only about 75% of what the prior comedy made. As for the critics, while “Meet the Fockers” left critics unhappy — as opposed to the very well reviewed original smash-hit, “Meet the Parents” — it was a regular success d’estime compared to the woeful reviews of the third film in what critics are praying will remain a trilogy. Strangely enough, this seems to correlate with diminishing returns for the series.

Overall, things weren’t any better, with Sony’s two expensive, poorly reviewed, star-laden turkeys  — “How Do You Know” and “The Tourist — being slaughtered in their second and third weeks, respectively. (To be fair, since it stars literally the two most famous people in the world right now not named “Obama” or “Oprah” or “Palin” or “Assange,” “The Tourist” is doing significantly better than the latest from James Brooks, but both films are money losers right now.) The extremely un-promising and critically derided “Gulliver’s Travels” was all but thrown to the wolves by Fox and its release was delayed until Friday. It opened in 7th place for the weekend with a Lilliputian estimate of $7.2 million.

Anne Thompson notes that this three-day weekend at the movies was 44% lower than last year, and had some choice words on the drop:

Little Fockers repped the widest-appeal offering among the weakest bunch of holiday releases in recent memory. At a time when studios usually try to maximize returns on their strongest pictures, they instead offered audiences a menu of costly, tame, MOR fare—and moviegoers stayed away in droves.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon happily calculate their back-end deals in

On the other hand, there was good news this Xmas weekend for movies deemed nice by critics. The critically beloved western from the critically beloved Coen Brothers, “True Grit,” was the weekend’s #2 film. An opening weekend personal best for the distinctive Joel and Ethan C., it earned roughly $38.8 million for Paramount over the five day period (it’s weekend estimate is healthy $25.6 million) while costing $62 million less that “Fockers.” Moreover the money is said to be “up on the screen” as the film is wowing viewers with Director of Photography Roger Deakins’ visuals. It also provides audiences with two high grade superstars (Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon) and even creates a potential new one in young Hailee Steinfeld. If you’re over 40, you might remember a time when film producers often saved money by creating new stars instead of trying to hide their mistakes behind established ones.

Also, contrary to the questionable conventional wisdom that young people have an inborn dislike of westerns (how can they dislike something they’ve never seen?), “True Grit” actually scored slightly better among younger viewers on Cinemascore. Especially considering inevitable Oscar nominations and the way all Coen films have of lingering in the public consciousness, the long-term prospects for big-time legs and Blu-Ray/DVD sales seems extremely bright here. Can’t wait to see this one.

There was also good news this week overall for limited release films like Sylvain Chomet’s animated “The Illusionist” and more so for Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” — getting decent reviews but also suffering some very pronounced critical backlash for the Michelangelo Antonioni-influenced younger Coppola.

Colin Firth builds his confidence in Breaking out of the limited release ghetto to some degree, the critical darling and Oscar favorite from director Tom Hooper, “The King’s Speech,” did just fine, earning  an estimate of over $4.5 million in only 700 theaters. It came in at 11th place nationwide, just ahead of — wait for it, “How Do You Know” — which managed to eek out about $3.5 million in 2,483 theaters. Behold the power of Rotten Tomatoes.