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The Deceptive Infectiousness of Laughter

By Dustin Rowles | Box Office Round-Ups | August 1, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Box Office Round-Ups | August 1, 2010 |

I present you with a short anecdote that I will later artlessly tie into this box-office round-up: On Saturday, I went to a church fair in a very small town in New Hampshire, a place that the rest of the world has largely passed by. This “fair,” was comprised of a huge yard sale, where VHS copies of fitness routines and cassette tapes were on sale among scores of broken toys and mass market paperbacks. Homemade ice cream was sold, and at the end of the day, we ate potluck meals while an auctioneer sold off the nicer items, like “Extreme Home Makeover” baseball caps, left by a crew remodeling a house a few cities over. It was an interesting experience. But the big draw for the fair was former National Poet Laureate, Donald Hall, who did a poetry reading inside the church before the potluck. He’s 84. He’s also pretty incredible. Anyway, before he got to the poems about death and dying and the blue ghost, he began the reading with a few lighthearted, amusing numbers. And as he finished each one, the audience in the pews would laugh merrily, and hearing that laughter, as if it were a cue, my three-year-old son — who had no idea what this man was saying — would let out a loud laugh that would fill in the silence about three seconds after everyone else had finished laughing. That laugh would of course prompt another round of laughter, after Donald Hall laughed at the toddler who was laughing at the poems everyone knew the toddler couldn’t understand. It was quite a scene. (We only allowed it to happen twice before we took our son outside, not daring to wear out our welcome).


I stand by my review of Dinner for Schmucks. I thought it was a dreadful excuse for a comedy, and most of the jokes felt like close friends listlessly going through one of their running banter routines for the 497th time while eating cereal and watching “Saved by the Bell” reruns. It was flat, pathetic, and unfunny. I really did fall asleep twice, and I can’t think of a moment during the film where I actually laughed.

So it was something of a surprise for me to learn that Schmucks had warranted a 51 percent rating over on the Tomatometer — I was expecting something more along the lines of 8 - 10 percent, with mostly positive reviews from the usual blurb whores. And while, yes, most of those positive reviews came from the usual suspects, none of whom really loved it (while most of the other 49 percent hated it) there were some mildly positive reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert, and two people in the online world whose opinion I respect considerably: Christopher Campbell (whose taste runs toward the intelligent and esoteric) and Eric D. Snider, who usually crushes these bland, mainstream comedic offerings into a hairy pulp.

I was flummoxed, and wondered briefly whether there were two different prints being screened, one for the press and another for those of us who watch the film after it opens. That’s not the case, of course. So I was left to conclude, by process of elimination, that opinion of this comedy had been influenced by the attending audience. I wrote about the movie-going experience last year, and noted that comedies and comedy-horrors are best enjoyed in the company of lots of other theatergoers, suggesting that the infectiousness of the audience can significantly increase your enjoyment level.

At my sparsely populated screening for Schmucks, there was only one laughing outlier among the audience, who snorted and guffawed at everything, while the rest of us sort of rolled our eyes and wondered what the hell that dude was smoking. But I read in a few of the other reviews that the larger screenings had been won over by Schmucks and that attendees were apparently crying themselves to tears. And so, I wondered, what if the outlier in my screening had been more prominent in other screenings, and his laughter — and others like him — had infected the rest of the audience. After all, it’s hard not to laugh when a roomful of people are laughing. as my son had so deftly demonstrated in the anecdote above. When we hear someone laugh, we often get caught up in it ourselves, whether what is being laughed at deserves it or not. How else can you explain the success of Dane Cook’s career?

And so while I still believe that Schmucks was an embarrassingly bad movie, I’ll grant that it might be a worthwhile experience if you watch it with the right crowd. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to find many crowded screenings of Schmucks after the movie opened this weekend in second place with a mediocre $23 million, which means that next weekend — when theaters are half as full — you’re less likely to get a large audience capable of spreading their infectious laughter. You might have to settle for The Other Guys for your conditioned laughter needs.

Indeed, it was Inception that topped the box office again, putting up another $27 million to bring its total to $193 million after three weeks (imagine, if it were 3D, it’d probably be closing in on $300 million). That also puts Inception at number one all time under the “heist/caper” and the “Mindbender” categories. It’s also the 23rd best third weekend of all time, for those that care about such numbers.

In its second weekend, Salt added another $20 million, bringing it’s total to $70 million and essentially guaranteeing a $100 million run, which — along with international grosses — will make the Jolie starrer a studio success. At number four, Despicable Me also stuck around another week, bringing its cumulative gross to $190 million.

The other two wide openers, Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Charlie St. Cloud didn’t fare so well in their opening frames, putting up around $12 million apiece. We’ll have reviews of both of those up tomorrow.

In limited release, the only notable entry was Get Low, which also had the highest per screen average — $22,000 — of all releases.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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