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''Rules of Engagement'' topples ''Erin Brockovich''

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Many teen stars have tried and failed to upset Julia Roberts at the box office, but it took a couple of old hands to do the job: Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones’ testosterone carnival ”Rules of Engagement” landed in first with an estimated $15.3 million. And in its fourth week, ”Erin Brockovich” had to settle for second place with $10.1 million, although its 27 percent drop from the previous weekend was the lowest of any holdover film.

The weekend’s other new releases were no challenge to Roberts. ”Return to Me” — the kind of romantic comedy that would gross $15 billion IF it starred Julia — took in a respectable $8 million for fourth place (after ”The Road to El Dorado,” with $8.9 million). The wrestling comedy ”Ready to Rumble,” on the other hand, was up against the ropes, taking in only $5.6 million for sixth place (after the fifth-place ”Skulls,” which grossed another $6.4 million). And all the controversy in the world couldn’t save ”Black and White,” which took in $2.3 million, missing the top 10. Granted, it was in limited release, but even there its debut $1,791 per-screen average pales compared to the month-old ”Brockovich”’s $3,361.

CRITICAL MASS According to our online Critical Mass Movie Poll, ”Rules of Engagement” wasn’t particularly engaging. It received a B- grade overall, and readers seemed evenly split over its entertainment value: Thirty-two percent said it was better than expected, 36 percent said it was worse, and another 32 percent said it was just about what they expected.

Meanwhile, over at the tearjerking ”Return to Me,” the romance gender gap was in full effect. Females gave it an exemplary A-, while males graded it only a B; with the film averaging an overall A-. The battle of the sexes shifted the other way in ”Ready to Rumble.” While neither gender could claim to love it (it got an overall C), at least men were more tolerant, giving it a C+, while women came oh-so-close to failing it, giving it a D-. Gee, and you’d think watching Oliver Platt in a unitard would be every woman’s fantasy.