Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The King's Weakness

Michael C here from Serious Film.

That low hissing you may have heard coming from the Hollywood area over the last week is the sound of the air leaking out of Tom Hooper's The King’s Speech and its status as Oscar frontrunner. That’s the trouble with leading the pack. Any indication you’re not steamrolling the competition is instantly seized upon as proof that you are nothing but a lot of well-orchestrated studio hype, and before you know it voters are mentally test driving the image of David Fincher holding an Oscar to see how it feels.

So what is tripping up the King? It’s not simply that its current chief rival, The Social Network, has staked out an early dominance in the critical awards circuit. Being the critics darling can be helpful, as it surely was for The Hurt Locker, but just as often it's a sign that a film will end up an Oscar bridesmaid. Films like Sideways or Lost in Translation garnered critics prizes by the bucketful and they couldn’t so much as ding the Oscar favorites for their respective years.

My hunch is that more people are seeing the film and finding that it's not clearing some basic hurdle. To be perceived as a viable Best Picture winner a film has to connect to some grand emotional current, to make it about more than the nuts and bolts of the story. It’s not enough to be an amusing story well told, which is where it appears The King’s Speech is landing, despite all its prestigious trappings.

Sure, Speech has big ideas around the periphery, the ones about Colin Firth finding great recesses of strength at the crossroads of history, and so on. But at heart it really is just the story of poor Bertie overcoming his bizarre childhood to conquer his stutter, and a stammer vanquished does not a Best Picture Oscar make. The fact the Churchill is wheeled on and off a few times for the occasional portentous line doesn’t automatically lend the story significance. It’s an anecdote.

In other years that might be enough, but Hooper's film is up against an assortment of movies that do reach that deeper plane. 127 Hours, quibbles with the film aside, made you ask how much you would be willing to sacrifice for life. That rock was every obstacle, every fear Aaron Ralston ever faced. The Social Network, contrary to scuttlebutt about how cold it is, really lands those themes about loyalty and friendship in a way that stays with the viewer. David O. Russel’s upcoming The Fighter packs an enormous emotional wallop with many of the same ideas King’s Speech was circling: casting off the limitations instilled by your family and taking control of your own destiny. 

Maybe I’m wrong and Speech can coast to victory on being pleasant and well-crafted, but Hooper’s film certainly has its work cut out for it holding off the threat of more resonant films.

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