Thursday, February 24, 2011
Mourning The Social Network in advance
The Social Network will not win best picture this weekend.
Why? Because a nice little period piece about overcoming adversity is going to come in and swipe away the Oscar.
When I say "swipe away the Oscar" I might as well be saying "sweep the Oscars." If the 12 Oscar nominations for The King's Speech did not stagger you, the fact that it could win half of them should.
Mind you, this isn't one of those years where I have serious misgivings about the eventual best picture winner. That's happened a bunch in recent years, where I've had minor to major problems with the movie that won. Even in the six years I've known my wife I can think of four examples of movies I thought had too many flaws to win: Million Dollar Baby, Crash, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker. When The King's Speech wins, it will have my unambiguous support as a worthy contender.
It's just nowhere near as worthy as The Social Network.
I don't talk a lot about The Social Network on this blog. I've spent considerably more time heaping praise on the other four of my top five films of the year -- 127 Hours, Tangled, Agora and Winter's Bone -- than on The Social Network. In part that's probably because I thought each of those films, in their own way, required some kind of help from me, while the chorus of love for The Social Network was deafening already. For me to construct an entire piece on why David Fincher's film was so great would be just to repeat what numerous others have already written on the film blogosphere.
Now I'm wondering if we took The Social Network for granted. All of us.
I read an interesting take just now on why The King's Speech will win. You may already be aware of it, but I was not. While the praise for The Social Network was inescapable about two months ago, that's because that was when all the critics groups were releasing their accolades. But critics don't vote on the Oscars -- Academy members do. And so when the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild all awarded their top honors to The King's Speech, the writing for The Social Network was on the wall.
But why? Why do critics have such a different outlook on this year's best picture race than the people who actually make the movies?
If I were being cynical/uncharitable, I'd say it's because the people who make movies are not as smart as we are. On the whole, that is. Any large body, like the Academy, tends to have a very populist undercurrent, just because it is comprised of so many damn people (upwards of 4,000, right?). And if you're an intellectual snob, populism = stupidity.
The thing is, I thought that The Social Network was stupidity-proof. I thought it was so damn good that it was going to walk away with the Oscar, unchallenged. And that's me trying to be unbiased. It's not even my favorite best picture nominee -- that honor goes to 127 Hours. But it was the best picture nominee I thought "we all" (both critics and Academy members) could get behind.
Speaking of 127 Hours, I'm still trying to get over the fact that Colin Firth will take the best actor Oscar over James Franco, even though I conceded that long ago. In fact, Franco is probably not even the #2 contender for the award, which you could argue would be either Jesse Eisenberg or Jeff Bridges (despite his win last year, people seem to love Bridges in True Grit). Franco probably sealed his fate as a non-contender when he agreed to host the ceremony. (We just watched the Dana Carvey SNL last night, which featured Paul Brittain as Franco, doing every job on the set -- as well as discussing all the other jobs he's doing, such as rabbi and cab driver.)
But I really didn't think I would have to concede best picture to The King's Speech as well.
Look, The King's Speech is good. I'm not saying it isn't. I was the first person I knew who saw it, several weeks before Christmas. When I came out, I thought, "That was a very solid movie." It actually held more interest for me as a study of the difficulty of a life of royalty, than as an "overcoming adversity" movie. There's no doubt that the movie has an excellent build toward the climactic speech, which is indeed quite tense. But I was much more fascinated by the way ordinary people rise or fail to rise to the occasion of being royalty -- because even though they have the bloodline they do, these royals are just human beings, at their core, who want and need ordinary human things, things that don't necessarily jibe with a life in the public eye. I liked the cinematography, set design and art direction, I thought Firth's was probably the second- or third-best performance of the year, and I was with it the whole way.
But best picture? Nah.
In The Social Network, you have a movie that defines our times. A director at the height of his powers has fully realized a complicated, layered script from one of the greater writers of our age, and gotten a performance of lacerating unlikeability from Jesse Eisenberg in the lead. The Social Network is so interesting because it takes something that seems so frivolous -- an addictive networking website -- and makes it stand in for a host of ways we define modern discourse and psychology, such that our very humanity is what's being studied. I'll leave it at that, because as I said, others have gone into this in great depth.
And now, it may not win any Oscars.
How could this happen?
For one, I guess The Social Network is, at its heart, cold. We forget that the Oscars often shy away from emotional coldness. One of the reasons Slumdog Millionaire won best picture was that it was emotionally warm. The fact that it happened to be the best nominated film that year was just a bonus, making for a perfect Oscar winner (even if the film has suffered backlash since then).
The thing is, "cold" movies win all the time. No Country for Old Men was as icy as the crypt.
Then there's the possibility that The Social Network came out too early. Its October 1st release date meant that audiences had months to fawn over it, and to get over that fawning. In fact, perhaps The Social Network crammed in a period of fawning followed by a period of backlash, all before Oscar voters even cast their votes. Meanwhile, The King's Speech had two months' less opportunity for that cycle to complete itself.
The thing is, movies released early in the season win all the time. The Hurt Locker came out in July. Maybe even June.
Who knows. Maybe one too many person in the Academy decided that The Social Network was too progressive -- too young for their tastes, even though the Academy has stated a desire to appeal to younger viewers. Along those same lines, maybe one too many person couldn't stomach giving best picture to a movie in which Justin Timberlake appears. (Let's hope that's not the case, because Timberlake always does good work.) Or maybe too many of them had worked with Fincher, who is supposed to be very difficult.
In any case, it looks like an advanced mourning of The Social Network is definitely warranted. It's a shame.
Here's hoping it wins at least one award. I won't say which one, but when/if it does happen, check back here for a post on the subject next week.
Until then ... enjoy the Oscars. At least there's no truly inferior film to Crash the party this year.