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Amid Oscar controversy, Kevin Hart has a number 1 movie to savour

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From left: Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman and Kevin Hart. The Upside, a drama-comedy starring Hart as a black parolee who becomes the caregiver and pal of a wealthy, white quadriplegic man played by Cranston, knocked off the titanic Aquaman to take top spot at the box office.

Los Angeles

HE'S still not hosting the Academy Awards, but Kevin Hart has a No 1 movie to celebrate.

Only days after quashing the idea that he would return as host of the Oscars, the actor and comedian is back at the top of the box office in STX's The Upside, a drama-comedy starring Hart as a black parolee who becomes the caregiver and pal of a wealthy, white quadriplegic man played by Bryan Cranston.

Despite an unenthusiastic reception from critics (the film has a 40 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), the film still exceeded most analysts' expectations, selling US$19.6 million in tickets during its first weekend in theatres.

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The movie's performance is especially notable given the controversy that has embroiled Hart while he's been trying to promote it.

Last December, shortly after Hart was announced as the Oscar host, he dropped out when several tweets and comments that were deemed homophobic resurfaced from his past.

Since then, his appearances to talk about The Upside have also involved discussions about the controversy, as was the case with a spot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show at the beginning of the month that briefly stoked rumours that Hart could be reinstated as host. (He has since definitively ruled it out).

But audiences didn't seem to want to punish Hart: They bought enough tickets to allow The Upside to beat out the titanic Aquaman and claim the top spot at the box office.

Not that Warner Bros, the studio behind Aquaman, has much to complain about. The superhero movie led by Jason Momoa brought in US$17.3 million domestically over the weekend and about US$27.9 million overseas, bringing its cumulative global ticket sales to US$1.02 billion, according to the studio.

The film had spent three straight weeks atop the domestic box office, and its strong international turnout has cemented Momoa - a Game of Thrones alumnus - as a moneymaking leading man.

Sony's A Dog's Way Home was the only other debut in the top 10, landing in third place with US$11.3 million during its first weekend in theatres, according to Comscore, which compiles box-office data.

This family film directed by Charles Martin Smith stars a real dog making a difficult journey alongside a CGI cougar. NYTIMES