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''American Gangster'' trumps ''Bee Movie''

New Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe drama ”American Gangster” kicks off Hollywood’s awards season with a $46.3 million opening weekend

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David Lee

Talk about starting things off with a bang, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe’s violent drug-war saga American Gangster parted the curtain on Hollywood’s peak season for prestige pictures with a big $46.3 million opening.

That No. 1 debut is the biggest of both Washington’s and Crowe’s careers, passing Inside Man‘s $29 mil premiere and Gladiator‘s $34.8 mil first weekend, respectively, and it’s the best bow for director Ridley Scott since Hannibal scared up $58 mil nearly seven years ago. In broader terms, it’s the ninth-best R-rated opener ever, the 11th-top November debut, and the third-ranked R-rated fall release of all time (following 8 Mile‘s $51.2 mil and The Matrix Revolutions‘ $48.5 mil). But perhaps even more important than its place in box office history is the fact that American Gangster (which has garnered generally strong reviews and drew a decent B+ CinemaScore review from an audience that skewed way older) is now positioned as a true awards-season contender — just like last fall’s The Departed, which debuted with $26.9 mil, totaled $132.4 mil domestically, and won that Best Picture Oscar thing.

The upshot of this box-office bonanza was that Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie buzzed up a sweet-as-honey $39.1 mil (much like I predicted), but wound up only in second place (much like I did not predict). Ouch! That stings! The animated family flick’s sum is in line with Happy Feet‘s $41.5 mil bow last November, sure, but the advancing years of its audience, which CinemaScore tracked at 53 percent over age 25, could use some lowering if this bee is gonna keep flying. Because, you know, studies show that fans of the Seinfeld sitcom don’t turn animated movies into hits, kids do.

Rounding out the top five were Saw IV (No. 3 with $11 mil), Dan in Real Life (No. 4 with $8.1 mil, after a minimal 31 percent decline), and 30 Days of Night (No. 5 with $4 mil). The only other major new movie, John Cusack’s quirky domestic dramedy Martian Child, was a non-factor, earning $3.7 mil at No. 7.

Overall, the somewhat unexpected smash success of American Gangster, combined with Bee Movie‘s strong showing and all those healthy holdovers, made this the first ”up” weekend in seven weeks. Total receipts increased nearly 11 percent over the same frame last year, when another out-of-nowhere R-rated blockbuster, Borat, opened to $26.5 mil. So, yes, all together now: Verrry nice!