Eddie Murphy will find out in two weeks whether he can add an Oscar to his resume for his dramatic turn in "Dreamgirls."
But either way, this weekend he proved that he remains one of Hollywood's most bankable movie stars when it comes to silly comedies.
DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures' "Norbit," starring Murphy, opened No. 1 in the U.S. and Canada with better-than-expected ticket sales of $33.7 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
The serial killer prequel "Hannibal Rising" finished a distant second.
"It's amazing how Eddie can put in a dramatic and creative performance in 'Dreamgirls,' then turn around and attract audiences in a piece of entertainment like 'Norbit' that's pure comedy," DreamWorks marketing executive Marvin Levy said.
"Norbit," produced for about $60 million, notched the biggest opening of the year so far, easily topping the dance drama "Stomp the Yard." And it was the 14th No. 1 opening for the veteran actor whose hits include the "Shrek" and "Nutty Professor" movies.
Co-starring Thandie Newton, Eddie Griffin and Cuba Gooding Jr., "Norbit" follows the romantic misadventures of a meek nerd who is married to a big, bossy woman (both played by Murphy). Things get complicated when the nerd meets the woman of his dreams.
Murphy's comedies, including "Norbit," have drawn scorn from many critics. Some say "Norbit" could undermine his chances of winning the best supporting actor Oscar by reminding voters of the goofy roles that have dominated his 25-year film career.
But no one can dispute that Murphy remains among the industry's top draws.
Although he slumped with a trio of box-office duds in 2002, including "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," Murphy's career is back on track in a big way.
His 31 movies have grossed a combined $3.1 billion domestically. "Dreamgirls," for which Murphy has already won awards from the Screen Actors Guild and others, stayed in the top 10 over the weekend. The film's domestic total neared $100 million.
"Hannibal Rising," a Weinstein Co. film distributed by MGM, took in an estimated $13.4 million, debuting about as expected.
The R-rated thriller, based on Thomas Harris' latest novel, stars little-known French actor Gaspard Ulliel as Hannibal Lecter in his formative years.
Anthony Hopkins, who played an older version of the devious serial killer in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs" and two successful follow-ups, is notably absent from the new movie.
The Lecter character first appeared in Michael Mann's 1986 cult classic "Manhunter" and was portrayed by Brian Cox. But Lecter has long been linked with Hopkins, so it remains to be seen whether the franchise can flourish without his star wattage.
The recent films with Hopkins in the role, "Hannibal" in 2001 and "Red Dragon" in 2002, opened at $58 million and $36.5 million, respectively.
Even so, Weinstein Co. co-founder Harvey Weinstein said Sunday that the new film would surely be profitable for his company.
Among holdover movies, Universal Pictures' romantic comedy "Because I Said So" fared better than last weekend's box-office leader, Sony Pictures' horror flick "The Messengers."
"Because I Said So," starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore, dipped 31% in its second weekend, grossing $9 million and finishing No. 3.
"The Messengers," by comparison, fell 51% in its second weekend, hauling in $7.2 million to rank No. 4.
On the art house circuit, Sony Pictures Classics' "The Lives of Others" opened powerfully in limited release. It averaged about $17,000 per theater in 13 locations in Los Angeles, New York and Canada.
The German political drama from writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck will expand over the next two weeks. Riding rave reviews, it could challenge Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth" for best foreign-language film at the Feb. 25 Academy Awards.
"Pan's Labyrinth," receiving one of the strongest box-office bounces since Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 23, stayed in the top 10. Its total domestic ticket sales rose to $26.6 million through seven weekends.
Industrywide results continued this year's sluggish trend.
Attendance is down 6.2% year-to-date from 2006 and revenue is off 4%, according to Media by Numbers.
Next weekend promises a major clash at the box office.
Tyler Perry's latest wholesome tale, "Daddy's Little Girls," and the Drew Barrymore-Hugh Grant romantic comedy "Music and Lyrics" open Wednesday, just in time for Valentine's Day. Friday's releases include the costly comic book adaptation "Ghost Rider," starring Nicolas Cage, and the family adventure "Bridge to Terabithia."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Norbit $33.7 $33.7
Hannibal Rising 13.4 13.4
Because I Said So 9.0 25.6
The Messengers 7.2 24.7
Night at the Museum 5.8 232.1
Epic Movie 4.5 35.5
Smokin' Aces 3.8 30.9
Pan's Labyrinth 3.5 26.6
Dreamgirls 3.1 97.1
The Queen 2.5 49.0
*--* 3-day gross Change (in millions) from 2006 $108.0 -10.5%
*--* Year-to-date gross Change (in billions) from 2006 $0.91 -4.0%
Source: Media by Numbers
Los Angeles Times