By Owen Gleiberman
August 16, 2010 at 03:29 PM EDT

Image Credit: Karen Ballard; Francois DuhamelIt’s not every weekend that finds three major Hollywood movies in competition, but this weekend’s triple threat of The Expendables, Eat Pray Love, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was more or less perfectly arranged to appeal to three separate — and, in theory at least, equally powerful — slices of the demographic pie. What resulted probably looks, in hindsight, like it was all too predictable. But the eternal fascination of the box office horse race is that nothing in Hollywood is ever truly foregone. (Especially the retro-lug appeal of Sylvester Stallone.) Here’s what the success, or lack of success, of these three movies tells us.

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Now that the numbers are in, the popularity of The Expendables seems, in every sense, a no-brainer. Extravagant big dumb action movie. With a dozen veteran machos. Including the formerly hot (Sylvester Stallone), the newly hot (Jason Statham), the still sort-of-hot (Bruce Willis), and the once-hot-then-not-now-hot-again (Mickey Rourke). All served up with a cheeky dash of self-deprecatory Man, we’re old! nostalgia. The result? A $35 million opening weekend gross. Like, duh. But let’s get real: The relative smash-hit opening of The Expendables was not, by any means, a sure thing. Though I personally thought that the movie delivered the goods, the reviews, on the whole, were middling, if not downright hostile. And in a summer where a movie as stoopid/clever as The A-Team foundered, this latest meathead retread of The Dirty Dozen looked as if it might have an even more severely limited appeal to women. What The Expendables was selling, however, wasn’t just action, it was ’80s-action nostalgia. The success of the movie delivers the same message that the success, back in the ’80s, of movies like Stallone’s Cobra did: that when it comes to blowing stuff up real good, it’s hard to aim too low. These are the kinds of pulp-vengeful, smash-slice-and-blast fantasies that Robert Rodriguez spoofed so exquisitely in his Grindhouse trailer for Machete (and, one hopes, in the upcoming feature based on it), and what evolved in the Reagan era is that this sort of picture moved, for the very first time, from the grindhouse to the multiplex, with bigger stars to sell it. (Cobra was like Machete starring Rocky.) That the formula still works to the degree that it does, and with a movie as grimy/fun/disreputable as The Expendables, is proof that tastes haven’t changed — if anything, they’ve just grown more resolutely devolved.

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The very solid chick-flick opening of Eat Pray Love may seem even more of a “Duh!” than The Expendables. Instead of simply taking it for granted, though, let’s remind ourselves of what it means: that Julia Roberts is, I would argue, the one truly mythological female movie star of her time. This summer, Pretty Woman turned 20, but after two decades of rapidly escalating American princess culture, that movie is still the cornerstone of Roberts’ career — and what it has meant to an entire generation is that Julia Roberts, beyond all her skills as an actress, represents something large and almost ineffable: the woman that a great many women still want to be. The Ideal. In Eat Pray Love, that mythical aspect of Julia carries through once again. I completely concur with Lisa’s eloquent mixed assessment of the movie, yet what matters in the marketplace is that Eat Pray Love is Pretty Woman Goes Around the World, finding herself. It almost doesn’t matter — in fact, it’s part of the appeal — that Roberts looks as if she never really lost herself in the first place.

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Those who didn’t care for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may be chortling a bit about the fact that it came in fifth at the box office. I would say that the movie, with its culty-cool Ghost World– meets–Kick-Ass vibe, was never meant to be a huge smash — that it was probably destined to find a culty-cool audience, and therefore a limited one. Still, one could reasonably ask: Given the generally excited reviews (including mine), the whiz-bang marketing, and the sneaky appeal of stars like Michael Cera and Jason Schwartzman, why didn’t Scott Pilgrim find a bigger audience? Was it too clever for its own good? Did it have too much kung fu fighting and not enough bubbly confessional freshness? I think the answer is simpler, and something that we might, by now, refer to as the Reality Bites principle: When a movie is targeted, relentlessly, at what Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny would call “the yutes,” and when the marketing attempts to flatter those same yutes by telling them that the movie will appeal to them because they’re the very sort of hipsters who are too cool to be marketed to…well, that’s the single fastest way to turn off a generation of moviegoers. Years after Reality Bites was scorned, to a large degree, by the very twentysomethings it was aimed at, it remains a terrific film, one of the best of its kind, and Scott Pilgrim, I suspect, will have a vibrant and influential pop cultural life long after its opening-weekend box office mini-disgrace is forgotten. It’s worth reminding ourselves that in the real world, numbers matter…except when they don’t.

So which movie did you see this weekend? Or do you plan to see next weekend? And how well do you think that the success (or lack of it) of any of the week’s three major releases was correlated to its quality?