Box Office Spelunker: February 11-13

When all else has failed to bring audiences back into theaters during the dog days of February, Hollywood finally broke out the heavy artillery this past weekend and it worked. The secret weapon: a relentless ambush of romance -- though not necessarily the high-caliber variety.

How else to explain the enduring widespread allure of the latest generically titled Adam Sandler rom-com, "Just Go With It," which sailed away with $31 million of moviegoers' hard-earned cash. The ridiculous setup -- Sandler pretends to be married to his adorable assistant (Jennifer Aniston) to attract an unattainable bombshell (Brooklyn Decker) and falls in love with the right/wrong girl instead -- is precisely the kind of high-concept, lowest-common-denominator dreck that arrives encased in a review-proof bubble. But apparently, even the faintest hint of a love connection is enough to pack theaters on pre-Valentine's Day weekend. Then again, Sandler's audience has never been bothered by Sophomoric gags and predictable plotting and female characters as lifelike as hood ornaments. They go because they know the buffoon will get the babe no matter what.

"Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," which came in a close second at around $30 million, was also fueled by a collective desire for some sanitized romantic idyll. In this case, that involved harnessing the powerful hold the sixteen-year-old helium-voiced pop phenom has over the fantasy lives of anyone with an X chromosome under voting age.  We've got no beef with teen idols in general. However, Bieber lost us once his mercenary marketing strategy kicked into high gear and he launched his own line of nail polish. Then his intentions for America's young girls became clear: fleece them for their allowance, milk money, and piggy bank savings.

The weekend's biggest surprise came courtesy of the man who invented the romantic comedy and the romantic tragedy, for that matter: William Shakespeare. Before "Gnomeo and Juliet" took in $25 million at the box office, few could have predicted this odd coupling of the Bard, a few garden gnomes, and the magic of CGI would make a love connection with audiences. Again the only explanation here is that hearts always trump.

So what about the poor pilgrims who went out in search of true love, not these mass-produced knockoffs being hawked at multiplexes around the country? Well, in truth, many of these seekers of truth and beauty were forced to satisfy themselves by allowing for a broader definition of love. Some settled for the deep friendship that emerged between two men of unequal stature and power in "The King's Speech," which grossed $7.4 million. Or there was the broadly comedic affection that developed between friends with benefits in "No Strings Attached," which generated a robust $5.6 million during its fourth week in theaters. "Barney's Version," which celebrates one dyspeptic man's undying love for the woman who's clearly too good for him and yet still loves him back, posted a forty-six percent jump in attendance.

Finally, any true romance junkie knows that the most pleasurable love stories are often the most agonizing. That particular brand of die-hard romantic found satisfaction in two of the most harrowing (and best) films in theaters right now -- "Biutiful" starring Javier Bardem as a tragedy magnet who takes solace in his dedication to his kids; and "Blue Valentine," a beautifully nihilistic look at the random un-fated blamelessness fueling the courtship, marriage, and breakup of two people (played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) who simply weren't meant to be. We'll take this kind of pain over Bieber-Sandler-style ersatz mirth any day.