Eddie Murphy box office heavyweight with 'Norbit'

LOS ANGELES, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Eddie Murphy threw his weight around at the box office in North America on Sunday with his new comedy “Norbit,” which led the weekend field despite a critical battering.

The film, in which the Oscar-nominated “Dreamgirls” star plays both the timid title character and his morbidly obese wife, vastly exceeded expectations with estimated three-day sales of $33.7 million, distributor Paramount Pictures said.

The film marks the 14th chart-topper of Murphy’s career, and the biggest live-action non-sequel opening both for Murphy and for the film’s producer, DreamWorks. Industry observers had expected the $60 million movie to open in the low-$20 million range.

Also new was “Hannibal Rising,” the fifth screen appearance of noted cannibal Hannibal Lecter, which opened at No. 2 with a disappointing $13.4 million.

Last weekend’s champion, the low-budget thriller “The Messengers,” slid to No. 4 with $7.2 million, behind the Diane Keaton romantic comedy “Because I Said So,” down one with $9.0 million. The Ben Stiller comedy “Night at the Museum” held steady at No. 5 with $5.8 million.

With two weeks until the Academy Awards, Oscar contenders were confined to the sidelines, led by “Pan’s Labyrinth” at No. 8 with $3.6 million, “Dreamgirls” at No. 9 with $3.1 million, and “The Queen” at No. 10 with $2.5 million.

Overall sales were down for the sixth consecutive weekend compared with the year-ago period, according to tracking firm Media by Numbers. Year-to-date revenues were down 4 percent to $911 million, the firm said.

Murphy, enjoying some increasingly rare critical respect for his supporting turn as a troubled soul singer in “Dreamgirls,” returns to his slapstick comedy roots with “Norbit,” which is based on a story he developed with his brother, Charles. He previously donned a fat suit and played multiple characters for the “Nutty Professor” movies.

While critics admired the work that went into the makeup and costumes for his hulking alter-ego, Rasputia, they described “Norbit” as crass and unfunny, and accused it of pandering to racial stereotypes.

"People have to have a sense of humor," countered DreamWorks spokesman Marvin Levy. DreamWorks and Paramount, which also partnered on "Dreamgirls," are units of Viacom Inc. VIAb.N.

“Hannibal Rising,” starring a cast of unknowns, winds back the clock to focus on the formative years of the future Dr. Lecter (played by French actor Gaspard Ulliel). Critics were underwhelmed. Heading into the weekend, pundits had predicted the film could edge “Norbit” for the top slot.

The film was produced by The Weinstein Co., which pronounced itself happy with the results, and said the film would be profitable. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the movie under a distribution arrangement with Weinstein. Both are privately held.

After two weeks, Universal’s “Because I Said So” has earned $25.6 million, while Sony Pictures’ “The Messengers” has pulled in $24.7 million during the same period. The total for Fox’s “Night at the Museum” stands at $232 million after eight weeks.

Universal is a unit of General Electric Co.'s GE.N NBC Universal. Sony Pictures is a unit of Sony Corp. 6758.TSNE.N. Fox is a unit of News Corp. NWS.N. "Pan's Labyrinth" was released by Picturehouse, a unit of Time Warner Inc. TWX.N. "The Queen" was released by Miramax Films, a unit of Walt Disney Co. DIS.N.