As the Oscar derby – tightly contested and wide open mere weeks ago – gets whittled down to a remaining few, it’s looking less and less likely that Warner Bros. has a dog in this fight. What’s so fascinating about the situation is that the studio is finding itself let down by a solid workhorse of a director, while pinning its hopes to a relative upstart which, if I’m completely honest, I don’t think has a chance in hell.
First: The Bad
Warner Bros., in its infinite wisdom, hasn’t made many great films this year. In fact, the studio (which released risky, arty stuff into the mainstream last year – things like ‘Observe & Report‘ and ‘The Box‘), seems to have more or less played things safe while waiting for the next ‘Harry Potter’ to come out. (It’s being released this week.) So, as the largely contested “prestige” season is now upon us, Warner is stuck touting the only movie that it feels has any chance at Oscar glory: Ben Affleck’s ‘The Town’. The studio is, in my personal opinion, high.
It’s not that ‘The Town’ isn’t a good film. It is. But it’s not a great film. And Warner is clearly banking on its prior success turning a Boston-set crime drama into an Academy Awards powerhouse. Except that movie was ‘The Departed‘. It was stacked top-to-bottom with big-name stars, and was directed by a genuine legend in Martin Scorsese. ‘The Town’, by comparison, is based not on an internationally-renowned foreign film but a flimsy paperback crime novel. And Affleck, for all the promise he delivered with ‘Gone Baby Gone‘, has fallen back on some standard, creaky crime world clichés: the criminal with a heart of gold (played by Affleck himself), the troubled brother (Jeremy Renner), and lots and lots of choppily edited bank heist sequences borrowed from the Michael Mann playbook.
As pop entertainment, ‘The Town’ is fairly sturdy stuff. But anything else is beyond the movie’s grasp. Much of the time, it feels lightweight, lacking motivation or thematic depth. Whole characters (like Rebecca Hall and Jon Hamm) are given comparatively little motivation or backstory. Why does Hamm’s character have such a grudge against Affleck and his bank-robbing buddies? Why does Rebecca Hall sleep with a clearly villainous rogue? (And why, in said sex scene, is the aforementioned rogue as tender as a teddy bear?) Quite frankly, there’s more interesting stuff going on in Tony Scott’s runaway train movie ‘Unstoppable’, which has better action sequences to boot.
I wanted to like ‘The Town’ more than I actually did. As a series of sensational suspense set pieces strung together by very tenuous narrative material, it works well enough. I feel like Warner Bros. had the same feeling. The studio wanted to like ‘The Town’ more, and it wanted people to like ‘The Town’ more. (Although, as an adult-aimed, R-rated thriller, it’s become something of a sleeper hit.) But the studio’s support of the movie feels less like genuine enthusiasm and more like resignation that this is about its only chance at Oscar gold. Why? You ask, because someone let them down.
Now: The Worse
Clint Eastwood’s ‘Hereafter’ isn’t just an artistic disappointment; it’s easily one of the worst films released by a major studio this year. That’s saying something considering the kind of garbage that’s been unleashed on the movie-going public in 2010. I finally saw the film this weekend and was absolutely flabbergasted by how poor the final product is. I’m even more baffled by the fairly huge critics who have lavished praise upon it (among them: A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert). This was the closing night movie at the New York Film Festival. I imagine the decision was made by pulling the titles out of a large hat.
Eastwood has made a whole bunch of movies for Warner Bros. Many of them have picked up a few Oscar nominations – even so-so pictures like ‘Gran Torino‘ and ‘Invictus‘. Did anyone even see ‘Invictus’? So Warner Bros. thought that it could at least count on its old warhorse to deliver a film with surefire Oscar potential, especially one with a cast anchored by the superb Matt Damon (who is, admittedly, the best thing about the movie). So it must have been a shock to see the murky, thematically roundabout trash that he delivered, a film lacking in any soul or substance. For a movie called ‘Hereafter’, the thing barely has a pulse.
That’s why Warner Bros. is stuck pushing for ‘The Town’, which would be a lame duck contender in any other year. This is also why ‘The Town’ is being rushed onto DVD and Blu-ray by the end of the year, so that the studio doesn’t have to spend money on the costly production of screener discs for Academy voters. Now it can just send the same DVD or Blu-ray that we’ll be reviewing here. Not that it’s going to change anyone’s minds.
But Wait: The Good
With these two movies seemingly DOA, Warner Bros. can put even more muscle behind Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception‘. Last year, the Academy ballooned the Best Picture nominees from five to ten. It did this mostly because, the previous year, there was a public outcry (or whatever is close enough to a “public outcry” that the Academy deems listenable) when ‘The Dark Knight‘ didn’t nab a Best Picture nomination. The ten nominee format (put in practice for the first time since 1943) was meant to include populist fare like this summer’s dream-world thriller, which wowed a number of critics and proved a surprise box office smash.
A Best Picture nomination seems to more or less be a lock for ‘Inception’, if only for the technical derring-do that director Christopher Nolan pulled off. (He could easily nab a Best Director nomination as well.) But it will be a harder sell for the movie to actually win any of the awards it’s nominated for.
Well, for one, the movie is going to be confusing for many older voters. They are much more comfortable with fare like ‘The King’s Speech’, which is sturdy, well-made entertainment that doesn’t cause them to think too hard or question the underlying truth to their own reality. This isn’t a dig at older voters. A lot of people couldn’t stick with ‘Inception’. Kent Jones, who formerly helped run the Film Society of Lincoln Center, said he walked out about twenty minutes in because he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
Also, the movie is sometimes viewed as emotionally “remote” or “cold.” That’s a hard criticism to refute, although I remember finding it quite emotionally engaging the first time I saw it. Still, it’s hard to get at the heart of the story with so much pseudoscience gobbledegook in between.
The biggest strike against ‘Inception’ might be that none of the actors are going to get nominated. This will be one of those movies that could get nominated (and certainly win a few) in all of the technical categories. But in the big races, like acting and maybe even screenplay, it’ll come up short. That’s something Warner Bros. should get used to this Oscar season, if the studio hasn’t already.