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Box Office: Inception Performs Dreamily

THE WEEKEND’S WINNERS: Christopher Nolan’s widely praised Inception lived up to weeks of advanced buzz by opening to an estimated $60.4 million, a figure in line with the most optimistic pre-release projections. On the heels of last week’s surprisingly strong showing by Despicable Me (which continues to pull in throngs of minions, already making its way to $118.4 million), this could be a sign that audiences really are okay with movies that aren’t sequels, remakes, or extensions of a preexisting toy brand. Meanwhile, even more critically beloved The Kids Are All Right continues to live up to its title: In its second week in release, the Sundance smash made just over $1 million on just 38 screens (total tally: $1.8 million).

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer.

HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN: Warner Bros. has been hyping Inception since last summer, playing up Nolan’s connection to the film in a bid to build fanboy buzz (the first trailer was attached to prints of geek god Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). The studio wisely lifted the embargo on reviews two weeks before the movie’s opening (after one critic jumped the gun), allowing the mostly positive reviews — and handful of dissenting ones — to become fodder for the entertainment blogosphere. Also, the film played on a record number of Imax screens, whose higher ticket prices offset the fact that this was the increasingly rare blockbuster not shown in 3-D.

But don’t discount the cool factor when breaking down the success of Inception. The summer of 2010 has boasted several big-screen hits (Toy Story 3, Eclipse, Iron Man 2, and, soon, Harry Potter 7), but the young adults who drive the box office this time of year haven’t really had a movie to embrace as their own, the way they did with The Hangover last year and Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008. That may have changed with Inception: Early estimates are that 75 percent of Inception’s audience was under 35, with the youngest moviegoers liking the movie most. While Inception scored a solid B+ grade overall, according to CinemaScore, those under 25 gave it an A. (Older ticket buyers, however, were less impressed, awarding the movie a B-. In their day, dreams were about showing up for college tests unprepared and in their underwear; nobody tried to steal those nightmares, and people were just fine with it, damn it!)

And while far too much has probably been made of social media’s role in box-office performance — the so-called “Twitter effect” — it certainly didn’t hurt Inception that mostly positive reviews for the movie were followed by plenty of heavy breathing about the movie on the Internet. Some variation on “Just Saw Inception” was a trending topic on Twitter from Friday night through Sunday, with a healthy number of tweeters devoting at least 8 of their 140 characters to the words “mind” and “fuck.” (Even a Jonas brother liked it!) The strong word-of-mouth should help the film hold up in the weeks ahead, as Warner Bros. attempts to recoup the whopping $160 million it spent to make the film; a wild-card factor could be repeat business. In addition to seeing the movie again because they enjoyed it, might some moviegoers return simply so they can understand just what the hell happened during Inception?

As for Apprentice, perhaps Disney would’ve been better off just asking Donald Trump to star in this ill-conceived project. Pre-release tracking hinting at looming disaster was spot-on: The movie earned a jaw-droppingly weak $17.4 million over the weekend (for a total of $24.5 since opening Wednesday). The left-field success of Despicable Me (which, in its second weekend, nearly doubled Apprentice’s bow) no doubt siphoned off family filmgoers. But Disney also never made a compelling case for why anyone would want to see Jay Baruchel and Nicolas Cage hamming it up; a last-minute switch from one lame tagline (“It’s the Coolest Job Ever”) to an even lamer one (“There’s No Such Thing As No Such Thing”) hinted at the studio’s desperation. With Prince of Persia flopping earlier in the summer, the “What’s up with Jerry Bruckheimer?” stories are already popping up. Which means you can look forward to many CSI story lines this week in which people who say “What’s up with Jerry Bruckheimer” are found dead in gruesome ways.

Box Office: Inception Performs Dreamily