BOX OFFICE: Disaster! “Men in Black” are in the red — permanently — “Shaft” gets the you-know-what

box1It’s been labeled “Sequelitis,” but the rot extends far beyond a glib description of what part of America’s most lucrative export has become — mass production mediocrity, lacking innovation, consumed with recycling what’s worked before.

“Men in Black” was played and played out. But Sony, where “Spider-Man” never dies, just recasts it, figured there was more money to be wrung out of folks in “Blues Brothers” suits and shades fighting aliens.

Sony was wrong. “Men in Black: International” has a cute cast, dazzling effects, humorless direction and a script that should never have gotten out of the community college screenwriting seminar where it must have been workshopped.

black3It will need a big Saturday to manage $25 million on its opening weekend, which is enough of a domestic disaster to kill the franchise, even if the Chinese can be suckered into bolstering it with ticket sales.

Then there was “Shaft,” one last shot at turtle-necked pistol-packing “cool” with aged swaybacked screen icon Samuel L. Jackson. “The Black James Bond” bombed. Weak co-star, crap, dated homophobic script, bad direction, “recycled” product and audiences could smell it from the previews. An $8 million weekend dings Jackson’s star brand (he’s worn out that damned “Avengers” eyepatch, too) and ends this “franchise” before anyone can mutter the curse word, “reboot.”

Another bomb? Jim Jarmusch’s jokey zombie movie, “The Dead Don’t Die” is reaching…nobody. $2 million.  A deadpan dog.

The lone “bright spot,” if you can call it that, is Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night,” a platformed release that reaches a wide audience this weekend — and is set to finish at $4.5 million. Those are “Booksmart” numbers, and “Booksmart” won’t clear $20 — not by much, anyway — by the time it finishes its run.

late.jpgLike “Long Shot” and “Booksmart,” “Late Night” is an R-rated comedy. Like “Booksmart,” it’s built around women and has a distinctly feminine “safe space/empowered/woke” feel.

And yet it’s still not reaching a large audience. Watching it yesterday, I was struck by the coarseness and unevenness of the experience Kaling conjures up. Mixed messages, meandering narrative, a stab at romance which seems to have been rethought in the editing and a torrent of F-bombs.

And preaching.

Will word of mouth boost this one? It didn’t lift “Booksmart” or “Long Shot.” Reviews look better when you’re only glancing at the Rotten Tomatoes “tomatometer.” Metacritic shows a general lack of enthusiasm, save for a few “all in on Mindy” outliers.

“The Hustle” wasn’t as edgy as “Booksmart,” not as ambitious as “Late Night” (although “The Larry Sanders Show/30 Rock” and others got there first, and did it FUNNIER), and it will wind up doubling what these other movies managed at the box office.

Read its particulars on Box Office Mojo. What stands out? That Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson are box office “gold,” or at least silver? That a story that’s been filmed three times remains an audience favorite? Nope. It’s PG-13. And shorter. Funnier. No message, just sight gags and zingers and scenery and posh sets and costumes (escapism) and an odd couple at the heart.

Cut 10 minutes of F-bombs, whack a non-starter story thread or two and maybe “Late Night” breaks out. Amazon doesn’t know any better.

“Secret Life of Pets 2” is falling off steeply from its opening weekend, another $20 million for entertainment-starved tykes and families.

“Dark Phoenix” is falling off 77 PERCENT ITS SECOND WEEKEND. That’s calamitous.

“Aladdin” is nobody’s idea of a dazzler, but it’s still making money ($14 more).

Let’s soak this string of underwhelmers and bloated duds up, shall we? And ponder what might have been. Had “Avengers: Endgame” — a movie with no original thought figuring into it, loads of characters, a pandering script and a picture that in no way stands on its own as simply an entertaining movie (just a piece of the “universe” built to generate the warm fuzzies in a narrow target audience) — similarly bombed, this would be the SEA CHANGE summer at the movies.

Every boardroom in Hollywood would be in a panic, better script analysts would be sought out again, the word “original” would creep back into conversations dominated by “brand” these past dozen or more years.

We’d see our last $200-250 million picture built around nonsense and men in tights and women in bustiers. For a while, anyway. We came that close.

As it is, we won’t see more “Men in Black” or “Godzillas” or “Shafts,” but Disney will continue to flood the market with remakes of its most famous cartoons.

Pixar will never be allowed to retire “Toy Story” if the fourth one performs “on brand.”

And every three to five years, we’ll get a new “Spider-Man.”

Yay.

 

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