'Sweet Home Alabama' clips competition at box office

— The South has risen again at the box office as Reese Witherspoon's Dixieland comedy "Sweet Home Alabama" collected $37.5 million to debut as the weekend's No. 1 movie.

Two-week champ "Barbershop" fell to third place behind the $15.1 million opening of Jackie Chan's "The Tuxedo," an action comedy in which a man becomes a super spy with the help of a high-tech suit.

"Barbershop," a comedy-drama about a black neighborhood in Chicago whose residents make the local haircutting salon an unofficial country club, earned $10.1 million in its third week, a 21 percent drop from the week before.

The film has been criticized by the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for a scene in which a loudmouth barber makes jokes about civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. MGM rejected requests to have the scene cut from future versions of the film, and Sharpton has said he will consider organizing a boycott.

"People are voting with their dollars, and they're voting in favor of 'Barbershop,"' said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "The controversy can only serve to get the film more awareness."

"Barbershop," which cost about $12 million to make, has collected a total of $51.4 million.

"Sweet Home Alabama" benefited from the appeal of "Legally Blonde" star Witherspoon, although critics generally sneered at its story about a newly engaged New York fashion designer who returns to her Southern hometown to finalize her divorce from a man she considers a hayseed.

"This assures Reese Witherspoon's place as a major movie star," Dergarabedian said. "The movie rests completely on her shoulders. She's the main star, and carries the whole thing."

The PG-13-rated comedy performed well with the date crowd, and also had many families in attendance, said Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney, which released the film.

"Sweet Home Alabama," which takes its name from the Lynyrd Skynyrd rock song, broke the record for the highest debut of a movie in September, traditionally a lackluster time for new releases. The previous record-holder was the original "Rush Hour," which debuted in 1998 with $33 million.

Another big opening is expected this weekend with the debut of "Red Dragon," a prequel to "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal," starring Anthony Hopkins in his Oscar-winning role as madman Hannibal Lecter.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.:

1. "Sweet Home Alabama," $37.5 million.

2. "The Tuxedo," $15.1 million.

3. "Barbershop," $10.1 million.

4. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," $9.8 million.

5. "The Banger Sisters," 5.4 million.

6. "Four Feathers," $3.6 million.

7. "One Hour Photo," $3 million.

8. "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever," $2.7 million.

9. "Signs," $2.3 million

10. Swimfan," $1.52 million.

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