Just how mighty will 'Evan' be?

Carell spinoff leads b.o. fleet; '1408,' 'Heart' along for ride

Will moviegoers flood the multiplex for the new comedy "Evan Almighty," opening this weekend, or will the modern-day take on the Noah's ark tale face a boxoffice drought? That's the question confronting Hollywood as it steers toward midsummer waters.

Universal Pictures' pricey "Evan" -- the studio has pegged its budget at $175 million -- is destined to take the top spot from 20th Century Fox's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," which opened last weekend to $58.1 million. But the question of how big the new comedy bows is a matter of some suspense.

Although the spotlight will shine on "Evan," bowing in 3,602 theaters, several other titles also will get their feet wet. "1408," a high-end horror tale from the Weinstein Co. that MGM is distributing, looks as if it will trigger more excitement than the recent spate of hard-R horror outings, while Paramount Vantage's "A Mighty Heart" attempts to counter the summer fluff by appealing to more serious-minded moviegoers. In addition, Michael Moore's "Sicko" opens in one theater in New York before going wide next weekend.

Technically, "Evan" is a sequel to 2003's "Bruce Almighty," in which Jim Carrey struck a bargain with God (the sly Morgan Freeman). That movie opened to a four-day Memorial Day weekend haul of $85.7 million; its three-day figure was $70 million. Like "Bruce," "Evan" is directed by Tom Shadyac and written by Steve Oedekerk, a co-writer on the original, but it actually is making its entrance more as a spinoff than a sequel.

In place of Carrey, the new movie stars "The Office's" Steve Carell, who had a supporting role in the first film as a newscaster who is reduced to a blathering idiot. In the new film, he has been elected congressman and has moved his family to Virginia, when Freeman's God comes calling with a warning of severe weather ahead.

The first film was rated PG-13, but the latest outing has secured a PG rating in hopes of attracting the family crowd with its zoolike array of animals. And because the film also pays homage to the story of Noah, Universal has been courting Christian audiences in hopes of igniting a faith-based hit.

"Bruce" might have begat "Evan," but "Evan" isn't looking to match "Bruce's" opening numbers; readers of the tracking tea leaves expect the film to perform in at least the mid-$30 million range. But if a genuine fervor is developing around the film, the tracking might not be capturing that, in which case "Evan" could open in the neighborhood of $40 million or more.

For moviegoers looking for darker amusements, "1408" offers up a spooky PG-13 adaptation of a Stephen King short story. Adapted for the screen by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and directed by Mikael Hafstrom ("Derailed"), the movie stars John Cusack as a skeptic who investigates a mysterious room at a New York hotel where suicides have taken place.

While recent gorefests like "Hostel: Part II" have stiffed, "1408" is earning genuinely enthusiastic reviews. Cusack, though no superstar, has proven himself a reliable leading man. In 2003, he checked into an equally forbidding Nevada motel in the suspenser "Identity," which opened to $16.2 million in 2,733 theaters. Bowing in 2,678 locations, "1408" is shaping up as a solid performer in the midteen-millions range.

Making its debut in 1,355 theaters, Michael Winterbottom's "Mighty Heart" isn't looking to take the weekend but instead to settle in for the long run as a drama that can hold its own against more lightweight summer entertainments. The film, which debuted at the Festival de Cannes in May, stars Angelina Jolie as journalist Mariane Pearl, whose husband, Daniel, was abducted and eventually killed by Pakistani militants. The film, shot on many of the locations in Pakistan where the real-life story unfolded, should establish itself in the $5 million-$10 million range.