Commentary: What makes a boxoffice sensation? This year, it goes without explanation


Recession? What recession?

Amid the torrent of bad financial news that rained down during the first quarter of 2009, one of the few genuine "glimmers of hope" has been the local multiplex, where ticket sales are up more than 7% compared with last year.

The hit parade continued during the Easter weekend: Young girls happily parted with their disposable income as "Hannah Montana: The Movie" popped to the tune of $32.3 million, and during the course of its second weekend, the high-octane "Fast & Furious" became the year's fifth release to cruise past the $100 million mark.

Last year at this time, only "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" had crossed that threshold.

Inevitably, the handful of mega-successful movies serving as a boxoffice stimulus package have commentators searching to decode the magic formulas that have lured audiences to movie theaters.

No one predicted, for example, that Sony's PG-rated "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" would rise to the top of the list, a veritable colossus of comedy with $144 million in domestic revenue.

The hunt is on for a suitable explanation.

Writing in the Washington Post, Hank Stuever recently suggested that the movie exists in a fantasy realm familiar to most moviegoers while at the same time denying the economic pain of recent months.

"The movie takes place in a mall where there's still a Sharper Image and plenty of happy Black Friday consumers," he observed. "In Paul Blart's world (the film was shot on location in two Massachusetts malls), there is no Great Recession and the mall is still vital, important -- a noble center of commercial life. People are still spending."

But if "Paul Blart" represents a comforting escape from reality, how to explain the second-highest grossing 2009 release, Fox's thriller "Taken," which also has defied the odds by collecting $141.1 million?

The movie stars Liam Neeson as a dad who must rescue his kidnapped daughter from Albanian sex traffickers. Although Neeson serves as a reassuring father figure, the movie would seem to speak to some deep-seated anxiety -- except how many Americans really live in fear of losing their daughters to such a trade?

Maybe the best explanation for the movie's success is the simplest: It delivers on its own action terms.

Forget about trying to attribute current hits -- and misses -- to the prevailing zeitgeist.

Sony's "The International," released in February, presumably should have been a hit. The globe-trotting thriller pitted Clive Owen and Naomi Watts against a diabolically evil force, the International Bank of Business and Credit, and right now, banks and bankers are the personification of evil. "No one could have predicted how timely it has become," Owen noted in an interview.

But then the film stalled at the boxoffice, grossing just $25.5 million domestically. Did the movie strike too close to home? Or was the nefarious bank too unbelievable since it mounted a formidably effective operation at

a time when, in real life, banks look inept? Or was it just the execution of the movie itself?

In the process, Owen -- who would seem to have all the dashing bearings of a real movie star -- has hit a wall, first with "International" and then "Duplicity," a smartly plotted thriller also starring Julia Roberts that might have been too smart for its own good (it has grossed just $36.8 million to date).

Meanwhile, an everyman comic like Kevin James graduated from sidekick roles in such comedies as "Hitch" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry" to first-banana status in "Paul Blart" and has been embraced by moviegoers. There seemingly is no accounting for public taste.

But if that bit of evidence seems to suggest moviegoers are turning against traditional leading men, consider "Gran Torino."

Although technically a 2008 release, Clint Eastwood's latest film didn't go wide until January and went on to gross $146.6 million domestically, more than any 2009 release so far and more than any other Eastwood starrer.

In no way can "Torino" be considered an escapist movie for troubled times; it's set in a depressed neighborhood of Detroit and deals with such hot-button issues as immigration and gang violence. And though the movie offers the satisfaction of a good guy wreaking vengeance on his tormentors, it does so in a way that critiques the very idea of taking vengeance.

Sure, the recession might be driving audiences to the movies, but there's no one-size-fits-all formula for success once they get there.