February 11, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

The weekend box office results are in and the message from audiences is resounding and clear: Critics be damned! Eddie Murphy’s Norbit — one of the worst-reviewed movies in recent memory — easily took first place with $33.7 million, the biggest opening of 2007. Arriving on the heels of Murphy’s first Oscar nomination (for Dreamgirls), Norbit exceeded expectations, tallying a strong $10,759 per-theater average; it is the 14th No. 1 debut of the comedy titan’s storied quarter-century career.

Yet despite all that, my goodness, some people hated this film. I mean, they loathed it. Lurrrrthed it. Norbit‘s 27 out of 100 score on Metacritic.com is nearly the worst among current releases. Even audiences, which were split almost evenly between men and women and young and old, didn’t seem particularly amused: Norbit got an unstellar B CinemaScore rating. So how will all this affect the funny flick’s long-term prospects? Probably not so much. After all, if negative notices ever were going to deter people from plunking down their hard-earned cash to see this movie, they already would have. But, it seems, Norbit fills a certain critic-proof-ultra-broad-family-comedy-with-appeal-across-all-demographics slot at the multiplex, thanks to the slow departure of Night at the Museum (which finished at No. 5 this week, with $5.8 mil). And it’ll face no similar competition for at least the next month.

Gobbled up, then, was Hannibal Rising, which earned $13.4 mil to come in a distant second. That’s by far the worst debut of a Silence of the Lambs follow-up, and it comes courtesy of a shrugging audience that was, interestingly, just about three quarters over the age of 25. In other words, with Hannibal Lecter’s popularity among younger viewers on the decline, this very well could be the last movie made about him, no matter what they say.

Tumbling down the list and rounding out the top five — as, by the way, EW.com’s box office savant accurately predicted — were the romantic comedy Because I Said So (No. 3, with $9 mil on a moderate 31 percent drop, courtesy of women moviegoers) and the horror flick The Messengers (No. 4, with $7.2 mil on a steep 51 percent decline). Meanwhile, bowing in just nine locations, the German-language Oscar nominee The Lives of Others was the art house winner, averaging a solid $24,777.

But that silver lining is overshadowed by an ominous cloud slowly moving over the horizon. Including this one, every weekend of 2007 has been down compared to the comparable period from a year ago, and, overall, 2007 is already trailing 2006 by four percent. Moreover, reports straight talker Paul at Media By Numbers, actual attendance is off six percent so far this year. How unsettling! Especially since movieland bounced back from the legendarily dreadful 2005 with a solid 2006. So what happened? Did Hollywood get caught flat-footed while patting itself on the back for last year’s big turnaround? Have we just had a foul concoction of crappy early-year releases and weaker-than-expected Oscar contenders? Am I just being unnecessarily alarmist here? Hopefully, the coming weeks will bring us some answers — I say we keep an eye out.

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