Movie fans couldn't pass up three Eddie Murphys for the price of one. Murphy's comedy "Norbit," in which he plays three wildly different roles, opened as the top weekend movie with $33.7 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
The DreamWorks production easily beat the debut of the MGM-Weinstein Co. thriller "Hannibal Rising," a prequel about "The Silence of the Lambs" serial killer Hannibal Lecter that came in at No. 2 with $13.35 million.
Murphy had not had a starring role in a movie since 2003's "The Haunted Mansion," but "Norbit" benefited from huge acclaim and publicity he has received for "Dreamgirls," for which he is expected to win the supporting-actor Academy Award.
"He wasn't that visible on marquees in huge hits for a while, then suddenly every time you turn around, it's `Wow, what a surprise. Eddie is great,'" said DreamWorks spokesman Marvin Levy.
But while it was the year's biggest opening so far, "Norbit" was not able to lift Hollywood out of its box-office funk that has seen revenues fall for six straight weekends. The top 12 movies took in $91.3 million, down 10.5 percent from the same weekend in 2006, when "The Pink Panther" and "Final Destination 3" both debuted in the $20 million range.
"Norbit" was the 14th No. 1 opening for Murphy and came in well above the expectations of distributor Paramount, which had projected the movie might pull in about $25 million over its opening weekend.
The movie was trashed by critics, but the lure of Murphy again handling multiple roles as he did in "Coming to America" and "The Nutty Professor" proved irresistible. Murphy plays mild-mannered Norbit, his grossly overweight and overbearing wife and a Chinese orphanage owner who raised him.
"Dreamgirls," another Paramount-DreamWorks release, also remained in the top 10 with $3.1 million, lifting its total to $97.1 million. Murphy has another sure hit coming in May with DreamWorks' animated sequel "Shrek the Third," in which he reprises his voice role as gabby sidekick Donkey.
"It really doesn't get much better than this for an actor at this point in your career," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "This is a guy whose career has spanned over two decades, and he's still as viable a box-office star as anyone out there."
Psychopath Lecter, however, has lost his box-office luster. With French actor Gaspard Ulliel starring as a young version of the killer played in three films by Anthony Hopkins, "Hannibal Rising" was savaged by critics and drew only modest crowds.
Sony Pictures Classics' "The Lives of Others," a German film nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, debuted strongly in limited release with $222,727 in 13 theaters. The film follows a playwright and actress under surveillance by police in 1980s East Berlin.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Norbit," $33.7 million.
2. "Hannibal Rising," $13.35 million.
3. "Because I Said So," $9 million.
4. "The Messengers," $7.2 million.
5. "Night at the Museum," $5.75 million.
6. "Epic Movie," $4.45 million.
7. "Smokin' Aces," $3.8 million.
8. "Pan's Labyrinth," $3.55 million.
9. "Dreamgirls," $3.1 million.
10. "The Queen," $2.5 million.