'Couples Retreat' opens wide Friday

Comedy should dethrone holdover 'Zombieland'

It's a weekend for seasonal yard work at the local multiplex.

Like so many fall leaves, exhibitors soon will be begin clearing their theaters of the accumulated -- and largely unremarkable -- films dumped into the market in the early-fall boxoffice season. Helpfully, only one new pic opens Friday in wide release, Universal's ensemble comedy "Couples Retreat."

The cast of the PG-13 pic includes Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell and Kristin Davis. Uni execs hope "Couples" can capture the date-movie crowd to woo as much as $20 million through Sunday.

That should be enough to grab the top spot in domestic rankings. Sony's action comedy "Zombieland" should take the silver medal this session, if it can ring up half as much as in its chart-topping $24.7 million opening last weekend.

Last weekend's Nos. 2 and 3 finishers -- the 3D animated feature "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" from Sony and Disney's double feature of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" in 3D, respectively -- fill out a ho-hum listing of leading candidates for the top positions this weekend.

Prerelease interest in "Couples" is strongest among older females, but there appears to be decent pic anticipation among all demos despite lukewarm early reviews. Produced for an estimated $60 million, "Couples" was helmed by tyro director Peter Billingsley, an executive producer on last year's Vaughn comedy "Four Christmases."

Meanwhile, the specialty market should begin to heat up with the approach of the kudos season.

Limited bows this weekend include two pics from Sony Pictures Classics: the coming-of-age drama "An Education," set for four theaters in Los Angeles and New York, and the soccer drama "The Damned United," scheduled for a half-dozen bicoastal playdates. Magnolia Pictures bows the drama "Bronson" exclusively in New York.

Recent limited openers set for notable expansions include the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" from Focus Features, the hoops documentary "More Than a Game" from Lionsgate and Clive Owen starrer "The Boys Are Back" from Miramax.

Collectively, the situation makes for a frame unlikely to set the season record books alight. But it will be compared with a $103 million year-earlier session whose top opener was Sony's horror film "Quarantine" with $14.2 million.

Like a year ago, Sunday grosses will be bolstered modestly by a portion of the public getting Monday off from work or school for Columbus Day. About 40% of U.S. schoolchildren will have the day off, with the holiday more widely marked on the East Coast than elsewhere.

Despite a seemingly desultory approach to fall releasing thus far, the industry remains on track for a big uptick in annual boxoffice and potentially even admissions. Year-to-date boxoffice was up 4.6% through last weekend, at $7.74 billion.