LOS ANGELES (AP) – “Along Came Polly” came along and swept “The Lord of the Rings” from its four-week perch atop the box office list.

The new romantic comedy collected $27.6 million to debut at No. 1, while “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” fell to fourth place with $10.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

“Along Came Polly” stars “Friends” sweetheart Jennifer Aniston with Ben Stiller playing yet another romantically inept young man.

Audiences were not deterred by what some critics described as a rut for Stiller, who played similar roles in “Meet the Parents” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

The chemistry between the two stars was part of its appeal, said Nikki Rocco, president of Universal Pictures distribution. “Sure, he’s done this before, but now she’s with him. That might have something to do with it,” she said.

After weeks of heavy dramas angling for awards considerations, sometimes all an audience wants is a laugh, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co.

“(Stiller) does seem to play this role a lot, but he does it well,” Dergarabedian said. “The audience obviously loves Ben Stiller in this type of movie.”

If estimates hold, “Polly” will rank as the highest-grossing movie to debut on a Martin Luther King holiday weekend, topping the $23.4 million of 2001’s “Save the Last Dance.”

The Tim Burton storytelling fantasy “Big Fish,” which lost a close race to “Lord of the Rings” for the top spot last week, held on at No. 2 with $10.4 million.

The movie has slowly built an audience since debuting in limited release six weeks ago, and is one of the nominees for best comedy film at next weekend’s Golden Globe Awards.

“Enough people have seen and heard about it to create buzz, but not everyone has been convinced to go out and see it,” Dergarabedian said. “This is one that could really benefit at the box office from awards or nominations.”

“Torque,” featuring rapper-actor Ice Cube in a motorcycle-chase action film akin to “The Fast and the Furious,” debuted in third place with $10.3 million.

The only other film opening in wide release, the cartoon “Disney’s Teacher’s Pet,” was a bomb that didn’t come close to cracking the Top 10. The animated feature, about a talking dog who disguises himself as a schoolboy, was based on a TV show from the Disney Channel.

Although “Lord of the Rings” dropped to fourth place, it is still performing strongly for a movie in its fifth week of release. So far, the third installment of the trilogy has collected $326.8 million domestically.

Worldwide, “The Return of the King” has earned $771.5 million, putting it on track to cross the billion-dollar mark, especially if it fares well at the Golden Globes or Academy Awards.

The overall box office was down slightly, with the top 12 movies taking in $95.6 million, down 4 percent from the same weekend last year, when “Kangaroo Jack,” “National Security” and “Just Married” were at the top of the box office.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Tuesday, a day later than usual due to the Martin Luther King holiday.

1. “Along Came Polly,” $27.6 million.

2. “Big Fish,” $10.4 million.

3. “Torque,” $10.3 million.

4. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” $10.2 million.

5. “Cheaper by the Dozen,” $8.7 million.

6. “Cold Mountain,” $7 million.

7. “Something’s Gotta Give,” $6 million.

8. “My Baby’s Daddy,” $3.6 million.

9. “The Last Samurai,” $3.12 million.

10. “Calendar Girls,” $3.10 million.

AP-ES-01-18-04 1504EST



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