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Oscar Nominations: A Sad Day Indeed

  • 1/22/08 at 5:52 PM

Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening: Robbed! Robbed!Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The announcement of the Academy Award nominations is always the saddest day of the year, not because the voters’ choices are lousy (although they tend to be) but because so many worthy movies suddenly lose their luster. As long as the potential for a nomination exists, attention will be paid. Once the field dwindles, audiences desert the also-rans faster than you can say “Fred Thompson.” And it’s on to DVD…

Will there be a ceremony? I have no clue. Most of the talent will not cross a picket line, which would mean an Academy Award ceremony very much like the one in The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, hosted by Pia Zadora. (I suspect that O.J. would be available, too.) Can Hollywood possibly do without its annual ritual of self-pleasuring?

The surprise, of course, is the Best Picture and Director nods for Juno, a movie I’m almost alone in disliking. Of course I knew it would work for younger audiences — I concluded my review, “Brace yourself for the Juno Generation.” But the outpouring of love from every critic surprised me. In several reviews, critics patted themselves on the back for having overcome their impatience with the first twenty minutes, especially the scene in which Juno strides around her local pharmacy ranting that her pregnancy test is positive. (Sample lines from the clerk: “So what’s the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle? … This ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet.”) What those duped reviewers miss is that the screenwriter, who calls herself “Diablo Cody,” and the slickster director, Jason Reitman, engineered every response. Cody and Reitman introduce the characters crudely: no subtext, everything blurted out. The father and stepmother greet the news of Juno’s pregnancy by lamenting that she’s not into hard drugs and that she wasn’t picked up on a DWI instead. Funny. The father introduces himself to the couple that wants to adopt Juno’s baby by saying, “Thank you for having me and my irresponsible child over to your home.” The prim yuppie (Jennifer Garner) offers her guests Pellegrino or Vitamin Water. On and on, with sitcom banter laboring to be epigrammatical — except that each sequence ends with a switcheroo in which the characters display unexpected (and dramatically improbable) insight. Admittedly, my favorite thing in Juno is one such moment. Dad: “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when.” Juno: “I have no idea what kind of girl I am.” Lovely. But the rest of the time Cody and Reitman flatter the audience for its sensitivity while cramming in pop-culture references (and nonstop alt-pop) to make it feel hip. Even the sexual role reversal — the girl is the tomboy aggressor, the boy the passive femme with the long, skinny legs — is a con. (When Juno declares her love for the cipher Michael Cera, it’s the year’s biggest “Huh?” moment. The guy hasn’t been there for a second.)

It should be said that Ellen Page stands an excellent chance of winning the Oscar if Julie Christie and Marion Cotillard split the fogey vote. I think they might: Christie has peaked (and is not exactly a charmer on the publicity circuit); Cotillard is foreign and La Vie en Rose isn’t all it could have been; Cate Blanchett in the god-awful Elizabeth sequel is a joke; and Laura Linney is simply too natural to convince enough voters that she’s ACTING. That leaves La Page, who will inspire screenwriters all over town to overwrite like mad.

The biggest omission is Frank Langella for Starting Out in the Evening — proof, if any were needed, that the Academy Awards is not a meritocracy. Langella had no big studio behind him, so it hardly counted that he gave the performance of a lifetime — and was probably the only actor who, if nominated, could have stolen the Best Actor prize from the now-inevitable Daniel Day-Lewis. Other omissions: Ashley Judd in Bug, a mismarketed movie that flopped so badly it has become — despite generally great reviews when it opened — a bad joke. (When I cast a vote for Judd at a critics’ meeting, it was met with snickers.) Critics who turned cartwheels over Juno and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There had no use for Grace Is Gone either, a film of raw emotion and stunning immediacy that made (no joke) $37,000 in a radically curtailed release. (It was a Weinstein film.) The movie was deemed “too Sundance.” One critic complained it was “predictable” — and how could it not be? The story centers on a father (John Cusack) who can’t bring himself to tell his two young daughters that their mother has been killed in Iraq. Either he finally tells them or he doesn’t and he can’t not tell them. Duhhhhhhh. What happens in between, though, is anything but predictable: There are more moments of revelation in any one scene of Grace Is Gone than in all of Juno or I’m Not There — a reductionist vision masquerading as an expansive cultural epic.

Meanwhile, how about the lack of a nomination for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days? Despite a would-be kingmaking rave from A.O. Scott (who named the film the best of the year even though it hadn’t opened in New York) and Best Foreign Language Film nods from the L.A. Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, this wasn’t Romania’s year. Four of the five nominated docs are anti-Bush — what will nonfiction filmmakers do without him? I wouldn’t know how to choose between the great No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side. Maybe the latter, which is about this administration’s corruption and incompetence and something larger: the human capacity for cruelty in the absence of moral authority.

What of the rest? The Academy went with the critics in giving No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood its love, but my hunch is that neither has many enthusiastic supporters among the voters and will split the vote anyway. Too grim, too weird. Atonement would have been perfect Oscar bait if it had been any good. Michael Clayton is terrific — but is it too conventional a conversion melodrama? Could Juno squeak through? Diablo Cody might be one doodle that can’t be undid.