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Moviegoers Fond of Fonda's 'Monster-in-Law'

Moviegoers rewarded Jane Fonda's (search) return to the big screen by making "Monster-in-Law" (search) the weekend's top movie, though the comedy was short of a monster hit and the total box office slump continued for a 12th straight week.

The force is expected to return to the box office next week when the final chapter in the Star Wars saga — "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," — hits theaters.

"Monster-in-Law," which pits Jennifer Lopez (search) against Fonda as her villainous prospective mother-in-law, took in $24 million, according to studio estimates Sunday. Fonda's first major film role in 15 years was also Lopez's strongest box office opening performance, ahead of 2002's "Maid in Manhattan," which opened with $18.7 million.

J.Lo versus J.Fo earned $3 million more than another comedic take on familial combat, "Kicking & Screaming," in which Will Ferrell (search) faces off against his father and youth soccer coaching rival Robert Duvall (search).

The weekend's other major opener, the Jet Li (search) action flick "Unleashed," took in a respectable $10.6 million. Last week's box office champ, the Orlando Bloom (search) Crusades epic "Kingdom of Heaven," slipped to fourth place with $9.6 million, a 51 percent drop from its opening weekend.

While the total box office take was down 6.7 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Troy" debuted with $46.8 million, it was up 21.7 percent from last weekend.

"I'm encouraged by these numbers," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "This shows there is an audience out there. As we head into the week of 'Star Wars,' this is definitely a positive-looking marketplace."

Studio executives said they were not worried with the box office results so far. They point to next week's expected blockbuster opening of "Star Wars," which will be followed by several big films, including the animated "Madagascar" and the Adam Sandler-Chris Rock remake of "The Longest Yard."

"There's nothing wrong with our business that a good movie won't fix," said David Tuckerman, head of distribution for New Line Cinema, which released "Monster-in-Law. "'Star Wars' will jump-start us."

None of the major studios are planning any wide releases next weekend, figuring that any new movie will be buried by the sixth and final episode of George Lucas' influential sci-fi saga. Unlike most films, which target their appeal to one gender or age group, the final 'Star Wars' chapter is expected to attract a wide, diverse audience.

"'Star Wars' is going to turn everything around in a big way," Dergarabedian said. "Because it's the final installment, it's going to go beyond the typical sci-fi audience. It's a cultural phenomenon. Virtually everyone has a vested interest in this movie."

The only contest will be for second place.

"Hopefully we'll still be a choice for families," said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal, which released "Kicking & Screaming."

"There's room in this marketplace for a couple of films to be working."

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.

1. "Monster-in-Law," $24 million.

2. "Kicking & Screaming," $21 million.

3. "Unleashed," $10.6 million.

4. "Kingdom of Heaven," $9.6 million.

5. "Crash," $7.2 million.

6: "House of Wax," $6.3 million.

7. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," $4.8 million.

8. "The Interpreter," $4.4 million.

9. "XXX: State of the Union," $2.2 million.

10. "Mindhunters," $2 million.