The holiday movie season is filled with high-stakes showdowns -- will Adam Sandler's "Bedtime Stories" topple Brad Pitt's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" on Christmas Day? -- but few December matchups can compare with Friday's face-off: Will Smith versus Jim Carrey.
The actors' movies couldn't be more different.
Smith's "Seven Pounds" is a challenging adult drama about an emotionally scarred man on the verge of making a personal sacrifice as a profound act of atonement. Carrey's "Yes Man" is an undemanding comedy following a middle-aged washout who suddenly can't say no to any opportunity, including mail-order brides, Korean language lessons and bungee jumping.
Yet each film will test the true star power of its leading man, particularly as Carrey and Smith take on the kind of roles they haven't recently embraced. Box-office prognosticators say it could be a particularly close battle for the top spot over the weekend, with both movies poised to gross more than $20 million from Friday to Sunday.
By unanimous proclamation within Hollywood, Smith is by far the biggest audience draw around, and the only movie star who has been able to sell a ton of tickets to almost every film in which he stars. Smith has applied his ample star power to a wide variety of genres, including romantic comedies, sci-fi thrillers and uplifting dramas. The actor's last seven live-action movies have been global blockbusters. Summer's "Hancock" has grossed more than $623 million worldwide, and the combined domestic and international haul for the previous three movies isn't too shabby either: "I Am Legend" has grossed $585 million, "The Pursuit of Happyness" $304.3 million and "Hitch" $366.8 million.
The only chink in the 40-year-old actor's armor has been serious, period drama. In 2001, his "Ali" grossed a weak $85.3 million worldwide, and "The Legend of Bagger Vance" sold an even more anemic $39.2 million in tickets. And despite its strong performance, "Hancock," a few weeks before its release, was estimated to perform even better than it eventually did -- audience interest apparently waned because the film was less conventional (Smith's character was an alcoholic) than many superhero stories.
For all the laughs Smith has generated over the years, "Seven Pounds" doesn't showcase a lot of mirth or merriment. Smith plays Ben Thomas, an engineer haunted by an accident. In an instant, the tragedy changed his life, and Thomas feels compelled to make amends for what he has done.
"This is the first movie I've ever done that was a totally personal exploration," Smith says. "The idea of traumatic loss and how do people manage life after loss, and what is the difference between someone who falls into depression and someone who finds joy and an optimistic space. The answer I discovered is purpose."
As cryptic as Smith's analysis may be, the movie's marketing materials are even more so. Sony's trailer and TV spots pitch the movie as more of a thriller (and sometimes a love story) than the existential drama that it is. "Ben Thomas has a secret," the voice-over in one spot says, and then shows a social worker who asks him in the film, "What are you planning to do?"
The ads tout the presence of "The Pursuit of Happyness" director Gabriele Muccino, who also directed "Seven Pounds." But "Happyness" was an uplifting rags-to-riches story, while "Seven Pounds" is essentially the opposite. What's more, "Seven Pounds" is not attracting a lot of awards attention.
Warner Bros. didn't have to look nearly as hard to find lighter moments to highlight in its commercials for "Yes Man." The movie is filled with any number of over-the-top Carrey set pieces, including his drinking too much Red Bull, wrapping his face in cellophane tape and snorting hot sauce.
The movie's premise is not dissimilar from "Liar Liar," Carrey's 1997 hit (global gross: $302.7 million) about a dissembling lawyer who must speak only the truth for 24 hours. In "Yes Man," the 46-year-old Carrey stars as Carl Allen, a lonely loan officer who is challenged by a friend and a self-help guru to stop saying no to life and instead say yes.
The newly positive attitude not only brings Carl into contact with a potential new girlfriend (Zooey Deschanel) but also transforms his job. It also affords Carrey multiple opportunities to engage in the broad physical comedy that defined his early career.
"This is quintessential Jim Carrey," Sue Kroll, Warners' worldwide marketing chief, says of "Yes Man." "He's just very warm and very affable -- it's the Jim Carrey that audience's love."
Carrey's most popular movies also have been the goofiest. Among the actor's films that have grossed more than $300 million worldwide: 1994's "The Mask," "Liar Liar," 2000's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and 2003's "Bruce Almighty."
Carrey has done considerably less well with edgier, often artier, dramas.
"The Number 23," released last year, grossed $35.2 million domestically, and for all of its rave reviews and awards (including a shared Oscar for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" did even less business in North America. "The Majestic," released in 2001, grossed $27.8 million domestically; 1999's "Man on the Moon" grossed $34.6 million.
Carrey believes so much in "Yes Man" that he slashed his usual $20-million payday for a heftier slice (potentially more than a third) of the film's gross.
Audience tracking surveys indicate "Yes Man" may open to more than $27 million, with "Seven Pounds" around $22 million. But the true measure of each film's performance will not be told for weeks, as moviegoers decide if they prefer the funny Jim Carrey or the serious Will Smith.
Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.