May 18 2011 12:00 AM

A little spring cleaning before the summer storm


The annual avalanche of summer blockbusters is beginning
to rain down on theaters, with the opening of "Pirates of the Caribbean:
On Stranger Tides" this weekend and "The Hangover 2" and "Kung Fu Panda
2" due to arrive for Memorial Day. Before everyone becomes obsessed
with whether "The Green Lantern" will outgross "Thor," or how many
millions the final "Harry Potter" installment can conjure up in
mid-July, let’s take a moment to look at some of the surprise hits and
unexpected flops of the spring. They provide some telling insights into
what the public is buying and what they’re waiting to Netflix a few
months from now.

Certainly one of the out of left field success stories of
2011 has to be Bradley Cooper’s satiric thriller "Limitless," which
opened with minimal hype and quietly collected $78 million so far at the
box office. A slick, funny and thought-provoking story about a
down-on-his-luck writer who gets near-miraculous results from using a
mysterious new drug, "Limitless" got terrific word of mouth. Director
Neil Burger’s film connected to adult audiences looking for some
sophisticated entertainment.

That same demographic also responded warmly to "The
Lincoln Lawyer," an enjoyable, twist-packed murder mystery with Matthew
McConaughey as a suave attorney defending a wealthy but unstable client
(Ryan Phillippe). Another thriller that managed to find a fanbase was
director Duncan Jones’ time-shifting tale "Source Code," starring Jake
Gyllenhaal as a soldier repeatedly trying to change the past and avert
disaster in downtown Chicago.

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt’s long-delayed "The Adjustment
Bureau," which finally opened in March, raked in $62 million, a tidy sum
for a movie that was somewhat deceptively sold as a suspense story; as
viewers discovered, it was actually more of a metaphysical romance. But
perhaps moviegoers were so enchanted by the chemistry between the stars
that they forgave the misleading marketing.

Forgiveness was not in the cards, however, for director
Zack Snyder, whose "Sucker Punch" was anything but a knockout. The "300"
and "Watchmen" filmmaker tried to meld cheesecake, science-fiction,
martial arts and horror, only to turn out what looked like the most
overblown Loverboy video ever made. The $82 million extravaganza sold
only $36 million in tickets (it’s performed slightly better in overseas
markets, which are Warner Bros.’ only hope of breaking even on this
bomb). Another heavily ballyhooed bust was "Your Highness," a puerile
vanity showcase for Danny McBride, who managed to drag James Franco and
Natalie Portman down into the mud as well. Budgeted at nearly $50
million — very little of which seemed to show up on the screen, given
the shoddy special effects — the would-be comedy has made less than $22
million in six weeks, and won’t be making much more.

By far the biggest washout of the season (and possibly one
of the biggest duds of all time) belonged to Disney, which crashed and
burned with the kooky "Mars Needs Moms." The $150 million project
stormed into IMAX and regular theaters in March, only to be flatly
rejected by viewers of all ages. Its gross to date is less than $21
million. No wonder that shortly after "Mars" opened, Disney closed down a
lavish planned remake of the Beatles’ "Yellow Submarine" that was
supposed to be produced by Robert Zemeckis, who also produced this