Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: And the Oscar goes to … Norbit?

Here we are on the verge of the Oscars again—the 80th set of Academy Awards, in fact—and everyone seems to be all a-dither over the prospect that Jason Reitman’s Juno might wind up copping the little genitally challenged naked gent for Best Picture. The reasoning goes like this: the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood will cancel each other out, leaving Juno the winner by default.

While this neatly overlooks the existence of Joe Wright’s Atonement and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, there is perhaps some sense in it. After all, Atonement is in the unusual position of being up for Best Picture, but Wright didn’t snag a nomination for Best Director. That’s not generally a good sign. (And it raises the eyebrows of an old school auteurist like myself, who has trouble accepting the idea that Best Picture and Best Director can reasonably be separated.)

As for Michael Clayton, it’s simply the dark horse in the race—and, for all its merits, I’d say rightly so. It’s solid entertainment that further establishes George Clooney as the movie star of our time. It has stand-out performances from Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson, but it also has its share of flaws—many of which are masked by its brilliantly precise dialogue.

Personally, I have no problem with the idea of Juno winning. It doesn’t bother me in the least—and not just because I don’t take the Oscars all that seriously (even though I don’t), nor is it the fact that none of the nominated titles would be my choice for Best Picture of 2007. If anyone cares to look back over my reviews for nominated films, they’ll find that Juno is the only one I gave the full five-star rating. Of course, it could be argued that it was easier for a relatively small movie like Juno to achieve its aims when up against such ambitious undertakings as There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men—and that’s true. But isn’t that a bit like saying a mural is automatically better than a three-by-four foot painting just because it’s bigger?

At the same time, it’s hard to escape the feeling that a lot of the anti-Juno furor is grounded in the fact that it’s the single hopeful film in the lot. Everything else is grounded in despair and hopelessness one way or another. The notion that “art” has to be “nasty medicine” is always with us.

If I had to go with one of the other titles, chances are I’d plop for There Will Be Blood. I know a lot of people heartily dislike the film, and I have no problem understanding that. It’s not a pleasant movie by any definition. I don’t myself find it depressing, though I do find it shattering—which is possibly worse than depressing for some folks. Nonetheless, in terms of intent and uniqueness of vision, Anderson’s film is a daunting work. It’s the work a filmmaker with a distinctly personal voice—and it’s a work that both connects to and expands on themes and concerns expressed in his earlier films. There Will Be Blood isn’t as successful as bleak entertainment as No Country for Old Men, but it has a sense of growth that’s lacking in the Coens’ work. Where Anderson is reaching for something more, the Coens seem to me to be treading much the same ground they’ve been over before.

The real problem for me with this year’s choices is that I’m not going to be all that upset regardless of which movie wins. There aren’t any silly or embarassing choices here. The nominees are blessedly free of preachy foolishness like Crash or overwrought melodrama like Million Dollar Baby—two appallingly overrated movies that not only received nominations, but actually won the award. You have to go back to 1952 and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth to find anything quite as inexplicable as those choices. Each of the nominated films has genuine merit. What shakes out as the winner on Sunday night is almost immaterial—at least by comparison.

If you want something to really worry about, scan down the whole list of nominations—you know all those awards that you really don’t care about, but have to sit through in order to make it to Best Director and Best Picture? Scan way down—past costumes, past art direction—and you’ll find a ticking time-bomb of potential embarassment of untold proportions. See it? Yes, it’s the Best Achievement in Makeup category. There are three nominees—La Vie en Rose, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and—Max Factor, save us—Norbit.

So the choices come down to old-age makeup on Marion Cotillard,  tentacles on Bill Nighy’s head or Eddie Murphy in fat suit drag and/or Chinese makeup. Yeah, it’s a minor award, but that consideration does nothing to dispell the grim prospect of one day encountering the phrase “the Academy Award winning Norbit.” That ought to put the idea of Juno as Best Picture in perspective for everyone.

All will be revealed by late Sunday (or early Monday) and I’ll weigh in on the results in next week’s paper as usual. In the meantime, if anyone would care to make predictions, be my guest.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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12 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: And the Oscar goes to … Norbit?

  1. Andrew Leal

    Re the makeup category, Ken, it’s worse than you think. Nighy in “World’s End” was CG (the film gets the expected FX nomination), so they’re either honoring the starfish and barnacle warts stuck on Stellan Skarsgård or the abundance of eye-shadow on Johnny Depp.

    I rented the last two Pirate movies and watched them nearly back to back, which was a mistake. The DVDs had the Spanish audio track, and sadly, the folks dubbing these things in Espanol seemed to put more love and care into their work than the original screenwriters (the Mexican voice of Depp even manages to reasonably capture the slurring voice, but Orlando Bloom is dull in any language).

  2. zen

    I couldn’t get all the way thru Juno because the conversation was contrived and grating. I know young people who think they speak like this but more than a half hour around them and they’re already repeating their crafted smartass phrases. Someone like Juno in real life would have me smiling and beeping like a dumptruck as i backed up. I hope it does well because i think Jason Reitman has potential, but this movie played like a tedious sitcom.

    And as far as the academy goes, i’m tired of the politics of ‘winning,’ and like you, ambivalent about the results.

  3. Ken Hanke

    “Someone like Juno in real life would have me smiling and beeping like a dumptruck as i backed up.”

    I agree…sort of. I’m sorry you didn’t make it all the way through the film, though, because ultimately it’s about the real person hiding behind the facade that we first see as Juno. If it was simply about the poser with the carefully turned phrase and too hip to live attitude, I doubt I’d have liked it, but it isn’t. For me, the worst of the film was the opening, though I suspect that has something to do with the presence of the (mystifyingly revered in some quarters) Rainn Wilson, who gets on my nerves in a little under 5 seconds.

    Now whether you’d have warmed to the film over its entire length, I have no idea — and I’m a little doubtful, since I never equated it with a tedious sitcom, nor did I find the conversations grating. Contrived, perhaps, but all dialogue is a little (maybe a lot) contrived. Take the dialogue in an old Preston Sturges picture. Nobody talks like that — more’s the pity — but it’s memorable and clever.

    But who can say? I just returned from seeing Michele Gondry’s new picture, BE KIND REWIND. I thought it was wonderful from beginning to end, but one couple walked out on it at about the half-way mark. I’d guess they didn’t think it was wonderful.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Well-deserved awards all.

    I was interested to learn that JUNO had a busier day at one local theater yesterday than did WITLESS PROTECTION (which has clearly underperformed locally). THERE WILL BE BLOOD would have beaten WITLESS too, except that its length limits it to three shows a day. I know it’s largely the result of people catching the Oscar nominated films, but I still find it heartening to see quality movies beat the latest Larry the Cable Guy abomination.

    And now to get down to finishing off this week’s reviews so my desk is clear for tonight’s show.

  5. Justin Souther

    But Ken, judging from the comments on your I KNOW WHO KILLED ME review, I thought everyone believes it to be a wonderful film worthy of any DVD collection.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Call me jaded, call me cynical, call me overly suspicious, but the timing of that I KNOW WHO KILLED ME Love Fest (by first and one time posters) dovetailing with its release on DVD had just faintest odor of studio shills about it.

  7. Justin Souther

    I was a bit disappointed with the whole three seconds they gave to Bergman. At the same time, I was surprised to find that apparently ENCHANTED was the only movie this year to have an original song in it.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Well, since I’m currently working on an article on it, I’m not planning on saying a whole lot here (and I don’t have time right now), but…I was just glad that they didn’t overlook Curtis Harrington in the tribute section and that none of those “pastiche” songs from ENCHANTED won. They’re okay for what they are in the context of the film, but their value as songs strikes me as dubious. Yet the Academy seems to dearly love to give awards to songs in movies with the Disney name on them.

  9. Was it me or was this the easiest Oscars to predict? Besides Tilda Swinton (much deserved), I pretty much guessed the big ones.

    There’s a formula as of late. Big indie film = Best Original Screenplay. Passed over auteurs like Scorsese or The Coens? Best director and film. Did Brad Bird make a cartoon this year? Automatic Best Animated. The only awards that keep you guessing are the technical ones.

  10. Ken Hanke

    You could probably make that “did Pixar make a cartoon this year.” Am I the only one who thinks WALL-E looks absolutely painful?

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