LOS ANGELES – Steve Carell proved not nearly as all-powerful as Jim Carrey. "Evan Almighty," with Carell taking over for Carrey in a follow-up to the comedy smash "Bruce Almighty," debuted a solid No. 1 with $32.1 million, though that was less than half the $68 million opening of its predecessor, according to studio estimates Sunday.
Released by Universal, "Evan Almighty" has Carell as a new congressman instructed by God (Morgan Freeman) to build an ark for a coming flood.
Carrey's "Bruce Almighty" was an adult comedy, while the PG-rated "Evan Almighty" was aimed at a family crowd, which could give it longer shelf life, said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution at Universal.
"Family films have an incredible ability to just play and play," Rocco said. "I'm very optimistic about it playing out over the course of the summer."
"Evan Almighty" needs to hold up well in subsequent weeks to make good on its $175 million budget, an enormous sum for a comedy, resulting largely from costly visual effects.
If it can hold on in theaters and then score well overseas, on television and in home video, "Evan Almighty" could earn its money back, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.
"Opening weekend no longer is the only barometer by which you can determine whether or not a film can turn a profit," Dergarabedian said. "If it finds life in the foreign marketplace, on home video, all those revenue streams are really important. It just has to do well in the long term, then have life after its theatrical distribution."
The Stephen King adaptation "1408," a Weinstein Co. horror tale with John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson in the story of a man trapped in a hotel room with malevolent spirits, debuted in second place with $20.175 million.
Paramount Vantage's "A Mighty Heart," starring Angelina Jolie as the wife of kidnapped and slain journalist Daniel Pearl, had a so-so debut, coming in at No. 10 with $4 million.
Michael Moore's health care documentary "Sicko" got a head start on its nationwide debut Friday with an early opening at one New York City theater, where it took in $70,000 for the weekend.
"Sicko" also had sold-out sneak previews Saturday night at 43 other theaters around the country, where tickets were so in demand they were being scalped for as much as $40 each, said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., which is releasing "Sicko" along with Lionsgate.
The early screenings were intended to get interest focused on the movie itself, rather than publicity over a U.S. Treasury Department investigation of Moore's trip to Cuba for the film to get medical care for ailing Sept. 11 rescue workers.
When notified of the investigation in May, the filmmakers worried the government might try to seize the film or impede its release.
"It's trying to get people talking about the movie, rather than the idea of the government trying to shut down the movie," Weinstein said. "It's saying to the government, 'Hey, this movie is out there being appreciated by people. Think twice before you try to confiscate or take any legal action.'"
The previous weekend's No. 1 movie, the 20th Century Fox sequel "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," finished just behind "1408" with $20.15 million, raising its 10-day total to $97.6 million.
Like last month's "Spider-Man," "Shrek" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels that opened big then took huge drops in subsequent weekends, revenues for "Fantastic Four" fell a steep 65 percent in the movie's second weekend.
Universal's comedy "Knocked Up" maintained strong word of mouth among audiences, pulling in $10.6 million, down just 24 percent from a weekend earlier. Ranking No. 5, "Knocked Up" raised its four-week total to $109 million.
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. "Evan Almighty," $32.1 million.
2. "1408," $20.175 million.
3. "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," $20.15 million.
4. "Ocean's Thirteen," $11.3 million.
5. "Knocked Up," $10.6 million.
6. "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," $7.2 million.
7. "Surf's Up," $6.7 million. 8. "Shrek the Third," $5.8 million.
9. "Nancy Drew," $4.5 million.
10. "A Mighty Heart," $4 million.