A Magical Opening for Now You See Me. And Will Smith? Now You Don’t

The illusionists' caper finishes a strong second behind Furious 6, while After Earth crash-lands with its star and his son

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Barry Wetcher / Summit Entertainment

For nearly two decades, Will Smith has been one of the most reliable anchors for a Hollywood blockbuster. If his name were a question — “Will Smith?” — the answer would be: “Yes, he Will!” But this weekend, when he costarred with his 14-year-old son Jaden in the science-fiction wilderness adventure After Earth, customers proclaimed, with a roar or a yawn, “No, he can’t.”

The globetrotting caper thriller Furious 6 (known to its publicists as Fast & Furious 6) won the weekend at the North American box office with $34.5 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. That’s a cliff-falling 65% drop from the movie’s Fri.–Sun. total a week ago, when it heisted $97.4 million on its way to a holiday weekend total of $117 million. Not that anyone at Universal, the franchise’s sponsor, is complaining. The movie simply followed the plot of its previous episode, Fast Five: Vin Diesel and his gang steal a bank vault, make off with zillions and get out of town, quick. Furious 6 has earned $170.4 million in 10 days at home and another $310.2 million abroad (without yet opening in big markets like China and Japan), for a fast worldwide snatch of $480.6 million.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Furious 6)

But that’s just accounting. The real suspense this weekend was in the showdown between Smith and the light-fingered illusionists of Now You See Me. Expected to filch about $20 million in its debut weekend, the movie pulled in $28.05 million, far ahead of the opening frames for such magician movies as The Illusionist ($6.1 million), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone ($10.2 million) and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige ($14.8 million). The ensemble cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Mélanie Laurent boasted no bonafide stars, but together they justified Summit’s $70-million investment in the project. And the trailers teased viewers with the smart fun awaiting them. First-weekend audiences agreed: the early attendees (51% female, 52% under 30) awarded Now You See Me a CinemaScore of A-minus.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Now You See Me)

Fun, of any IQ level, was the missing element in After Earth, in which the legendarily charming Smith père rarely cracks a smile, while Smith fils dashes fretfully through an abandoned Planet Earth in the 31st century. Industry forecasters, including the Smiths’ patrons at Sony, predicted a first weekend well above $30 million. Instead After Earth managed only $27 million — the all-time lowest summer opening for a Will Smith movie — and audiences slapped the movie with a tepid “B” CinemaScore.

[MONDAY UPDATE: Actual weekend figures, issued this afternoon, show that the top eight films all earned more than their Sunday estimates, by between 1.3% (Epic) and 5.5% (Iron Man Three). The final figures for the top three entries: Furious 6, $35.2 million; Now You See Me, $29.3 million; and After Earth, $27.5 million — which was still less than the $27.7 million garnered in 1999 by the Will Smith "flop" Wild Wild West.] 

(READ: Corliss’s review of After Earth)

Smith has owned the warm-weather box office ever since Independence Day, the alien-invasion smash that opened to $50.2 million in July 1996 and went on to amass $817.4 million worldwide (a celestial $1.5 billion in current dollars). Consider these first-weekend numbers: $51.1 million for Men in Black, 1997 ($589.4 million worldwide); $52.1 million for Men in Black 2, 2002 ($605.3 million); $46.5 million for Bad Boys II, 2003 ($273.3 million); $52.2 million for I. Robot, 2004 ($347.2 million); $62.6 million for Hancock, 2007 ($624.4 million); and $54.6 million for last year’s Men in Black 3 ($624 million). After Earth‘s first weekend was even behind the $27.7 million taken in by Smith’s 1999 sagebrush parody Wild Wild West. And figuring for inflation, that number would be $43.2 million today.

(READ: our cover story on Independence Day by subscribing to TIME)

Some critics derided the new picture as Smith’s $130-million vanity project for his son. (The movie was envisioned as the start of a major franchise.) Yet Jaden was no slouch at the box office three summers ago, when he starred as The Karate Kid. That movie opened to $55.7 million, more than twice the debut number for After Earth, and, boosted considerably by the Asian-market clout of costar Jackie Chan, racked up $359.1 million worldwide.

(READ: TIME’s review of The Karate Kid)

So blame here is falling on director M. Night Shyamalan. A star auteur for The Sixth Sense in 1997 ($672.8 million worldwide), the Philadelphia-based filmmaker stumbled with such eerie thrillers as The Village, The Lady in the Water and The Happening — movies sold almost completely on the director’s name recognition. Shyamalan was thought to have flopped with his 2010 version of the TV show The Last Airbender, another sci-fi drama intended to launch a franchise. (Which it didn’t.) Yet that no-star movie enjoyed a three-day debut of $40.3 million; it eventually achieved a global gross of $319.7 million. Shyamalan’s dream now has to be that After Earth can harness Will Smith’s international star power and earn more than The Last Airbender.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Last Airbender)

Elsewhere in the top 10, Fox’s cartoon drama Epic dropped 51% from its opening weekend to $16.4 million — a poor first 10 days for a major-studio animated feature. Iron Man 3 reached $1.8 billion worldwide, becoming the fifth biggest hit of all time (in inflated dollars), behind Avatar, Titanic, The Avengers and the final Harry Potter episode. The Great Gatsby held serve with $6.3 million in its fourth week, and reached $248.3 million globally to pass Australia as director Baz Luhrmann’s biggest worldwide hit. The Hangover III fell 62% from last weekend’s disappointing opening and officially entered a detox program. Though it opened brightly abroad ($82 million in 54 foreign territories), the series has to be considered kaput.

(READ: Corliss’s Summer Movie Preview)

In Indieland, Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt, a bio-pic of the German-American journalist who famously covered the Adolf Eichmann trial, had a terrific debut of $31,000 at New York City’s Film Forum. Jeff Nichols’ Mud secured a top-10 spot for the fifth consecutive week, yet has earned just $16.9 million all told. Noah Baumbach’s Francis Ha more than doubled its theater count from last weekend, to 133, but it earned about the same amount: $552,000. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, third in the series of one-night-stand romances involving Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, did nearly as well ($431,000) in only 31 venues. If the movie hits $6 million domestic it will pass the gross of either of its predecessors.

(READ: Joel Stein’s chat with the stars and director of Before Midnight)

The big art-house opening — if big means medium — was the anarcho-syndicalist thriller The East. Starring and written by Brit Marling, the film earned $75,400 in four theaters, which was just O.K. considering all the free publicity reaped by Marling’s guest spot this weekend on Real Time With Bill Maher, and by East costar Ellen Page’s schmooze with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

(READ: Mary Pols’ interview with The East’s Brit Marling)

Very few movies can succeed by tapping a core constituency far outside the Hollywood norm. With little mainstream advertising and virtually no U.S. reviews, the Bollywood rom-com musical Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (rough translation: This Kid Is Crazy) registered a lilting $1.65 million at 162 theaters in areas serving the North American Desi diaspora. The movie’s leading players — Ranbir Kapoor (son of actor Rishi Kapoor, grandson of the all-time icon Raj) and Deepika Padukone (daughter of badminton star Prakash Padukone, the first Indian to win the All England Championship) — may have little star wattage at the American multiplex, but they are famed throughout the subcontinent and beyond, not least for being an ex-couple.

(READ: Becoming Bewitched by Bollywood)

If Now You See Me showed that a popular movie needn’t be based on a comic book, sci-fi premise or a driver’s manual, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani proves that audiences will pay to see a foreign-language film — as long as it’s in Hindi.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Furious 6, $34.5 million; $170.4 million, second week
2. Now You See Me, $28.05 million, first weekend
3. After Earth, $27 million, first weekend
4. Epic, $16.4 million; $65.2 million, second week
5. Star Trek Into Darkness, $16.4 million; $181.2 million, second week
6. The Hangover Part III, $15.9 million; $88.1 million, second week
7. Iron Man Three, $8 million; $384.8 million, fifth week
8. The Great Gatsby, $6.2 million; $128.3 million, fourth week
9. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deew, $1.65 million, first weekend
10. Mud, $1.2 million; $16.8 million, sixth weekend

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