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Star Market: Can Rom-Com Queen Julia Roberts Reclaim Her Throne?

It’s been a long time since Julia Roberts has opened a movie on her own, and this week we will see if she still can, with Eat Pray Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir. Once the highest-paid actress in showbiz, Roberts has kept things low-key in recent years — in part because she’s been busy having a family, but also because finding parts gets harder for women of a certain age. Does she still have the value she once did? Can she reclaim her throne? We spoke to Hollywood insiders, did the research, and analyzed the results: If Julia Roberts were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?

STOCK HISTORY: It's amazing to think that once upon a time, Julia Roberts was known as Eric Roberts's little sister. She broke out in the ensemble movies Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias, receiving an Oscar nomination for the latter. Then, there was the nineties and Pretty Woman. Though she often attempted more serious roles with varying degrees of success (remember Mary Reilly?), she practically created the modern romantic-comedy genre: My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), Runaway Bride (1999), and Notting Hill (1999) weren't just hits — they were smashes.

Twenty years after Pretty Woman, Roberts is still considered one of the biggest stars in the world, even if she hasn’t carried an honest-to-God hit in forever. Recent films like 2009’s Duplicity, 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, and 2004’s Closer have earned strong reviews on the way to tepid box-office returns. She’s done cartoon voice-overs, contributed plum cameos in the Ocean’s films, and even starred in 2008’s atrocious Fireflies in the Garden. Despite all this, despite her 2000 Oscar for Erin Brockovich, despite her admirable attempts to tackle meaty roles, and despite her devotion to Steven Soderbergh (with whom she has made four films), Roberts’s name is still synonymous with the romantic-comedy genre she dominated throughout the nineties — and mostly abandoned for almost a decade. Until now. Eat Pray Love is the closest thing Roberts has done to a Julia Roberts Movie since America’s Sweethearts in 2001. “She’s going back to the well that really paid off for her in the late nineties,” says one agent. “Mainstream stuff, like Notting Hill, Runaway Bride, My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

PAST EARNINGS:

Pretty Woman (1990): $300,000

The Pelican Brief (1993): $8,000,000

Notting Hill (1999): $15,000,000

Erin Brockovich (2000): $20,000,000

Mona Lisa Smile (2003): $20,000,000

Duplicity (2009): $15,000,000

Valentine's Day (2010): $3,000,000 + 3 percent of the film's gross

Eat Pray Love (2010): $10,000,000

PEERS: “The business is tough on women,” says the agent. “Guys like Jack Nicholson, they get more interesting roles as they get older. But, in part because women are marketed as sex symbols, it’s harder to keep up that image as they age.” The romantic-comedy leads are now going to younger actresses like Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl, or Anne Hathaway. None of them have achieved the kind of consistent juggernaut success that Roberts achieved — so people are still wondering which one of them will be “the next Julia Roberts.” Within her generation, so many actresses have fallen victim to excessive plastic surgery or scandal that the field is thin. Her leading rival is Diane Lane, a lesser star who has carved out her own niche as a middle-aged leading lady (Under the Tuscan Sun, Nights in Rodanthe). “I hear [Roberts] passed on Secretariat,” says the agent, speaking of the upcoming film about the Triple Crown winner, which stars Lane and is getting great buzz. “[This] was probably a mistake.”

MARKET VALUE: Roberts was once considered bulletproof. The big question now: After you back away from what you did better than anyone else for a decade, who will be there when you return? “The younger demographic of teenage girls isn’t running to see a Julia Roberts romantic comedy anymore,” says one manager. According to NRG tracking on Eat, Pray, Love, in a survey of moviegoers undertaken last Thursday, 53 percent of women over 25 had definite interest in seeing it, and 20 percent said it was their “first choice.” By comparison, for women under 25, 30 percent expressed “definite interest” and only 5 percent considered it their “first choice.” The good news is that Eat Pray Love isn’t really aimed at teenage girls. The bad news is that older demographics don’t drive opening-weekend grosses.

How valuable is her appeal now? A Fandango.com survey released Wednesday found that 95 percent of those planning to see Eat Pray Love are female, and 58 percent are planning to see it with a group of female friends. But 53 percent say that the book is the single biggest motivating factor. Only 22 percent picked Julia Roberts as the leading factor. “She’s hoping people who grew up with her movies will hire a sitter, drive to the mall, and, for 28 dollars, go see her do the same thing she did fifteen years ago,” says the agent. “Or they could go see Despicable Me, or Inception, or something else they’ve never seen before.” A lot hangs on this film: “We’ll see if she can still carry a movie shortly,” says the manager. “I think she can: She’s ageless. She’s Julia freaking Roberts!”

WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS: “It’s just about finding that one great role,” says the agent. “Look at Meryl Streep’s career: For a long while there, she was cold as ice. But she reinvented herself playing the villain in The Devil Wears Prada. If she has one movie that’s a genuine hit, she’s still meaningful to the studios.” Luckily, there’s a lot more where Eat Pray Love came from: Bookstore shelves are packed full of titles about middle-aged women finding fulfillment (recently, Roberts was attached to star in The Friday Night Knitting Club). But making that sort of movie also requires a certain amount of forthrightness. “Because this book is so personal, she needs to open up about her personal life,” says the publicist. “All these new Q&As have made her seem accessible. Whether she is or not, doesn’t matter. People are responding to her as if she is.” At this point, the star power either works for her, or against her. Roberts is one of those few stars who can hold her own against the likes of George Clooney or Tom Hanks. (She just wrapped production on Tom Hanks’s Larry Crowne.) But star power can create problems, says one agent. “It can be a little hard to convince a director to hire you because you’re so famous; it can overwhelm a movie, and auteur directors hate that.”

THE ANALYSIS: Roberts’s market value suffers because romantic comedies aren’t the surefire moneymakers they used to be, and Hollywood has all but abandoned the adult-oriented drama. But this larger trend could provide her with some cover as well: Eat Pray Love doesn’t actually have to make that much to be considered a success. If this film flops, it won’t be her last shot. Despite all the hand-wringing, one could argue that Roberts has played her cards exactly right. She has successfully kept herself in the mix with appearances in films like Duplicity or the Ocean’s movies without taking huge risks.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Roberts is unlikely to reclaim her nineties throne, but she still has chops, range, and once-in-a-generation likability. She is already getting acclaim for Eat Pray Love — even if the general reviews are mixed. Most likely, the film’s built-in fan base will deliver healthy returns but not blow the roof off the box office. That's okay: As long as Roberts continues to make smart decisions, she will not disappear.

BUY/SELL/HOLD: Buy.

Photo: Jackson Lee/Splash News