* "Funny People" tops with $23.4 million
* Setbacks for Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow
* Extends Universal Pictures' losing streak
(recasts lead; adds studio comment, other films)
LOS ANGELES, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Adam Sandler suffered his worst opening at the North American box office in almost five years on Sunday with "Funny People," a chart-topping comedy darker than the low-brow fare beloved by his young fans.
According to studio estimates, the film sold $23.4 million worth of tickets in the three days since opening across the United States and Canada on Friday. It's the lowest start for a No. 1 movie since Jim Carrey's "Yes Man" launched with $18.3 million last December.
Sandler plays a comedian diagnosed with a fatal blood disease who then tries to break up a marriage. Top critics disliked the movie, according to Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com), a website that analyzes reviews.
His previous worst opening was "Spanglish," which started off with $8.8 million in December 2004. His big summer movie last year, "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," opened to $38.5 million but stalled at $100 million.
"Funny People" was directed by Judd Apatow, who was dubbed the smartest person in Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly in 2007. His "Knocked Up" opened to $31 million in 2007 and finished with $149 million.
The new film is the latest summer disappointment for its distributor, Universal Pictures. The General Electric Co (GE.N) unit recently released the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy "Bruno," which quickly lost steam at the box office, and the Johnny Depp gangster drama "Public Enemies," which failed to hit $100 million. It ranks last among the big six studios in market share this year, according to Box Office Mojo (www.boxofficemojo.com).
LOW END OF FORECASTS
Industry forecasts for "Funny People" had ranged between the low-$20 million to the mid-$30 million area, according to trade paper Daily Variety.
But Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said the movie opened "exactly where we thought it would be" given its darker themes. The studio said it cost $75 million to make, although some reports have said the bill was closer to $100 million.
"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" was No. 2 for a second weekend with $17.7 million. The 19-day haul for the sixth entry in the fantasy series stands at $255.5 million. Its 2007 predecessor, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," had earned $242 million at the same stage.
Internationally, the new film has earned $492 million, including a $66.5 million contribution from Britain. The films were released by Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc (TWX.N).Last weekend's champ, the Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) rodent cartoon "G-Force" fell to No. 3 with $17.1 million. Its 10-day haul was $66.5 million