Some of this year’s big movies are like a Thanksgiving dinner. They’re elaborate, colorful, and delicious. They also take time to digest, as most meals of such size and ambition do. Filling and complex, they remind us of the important things and inspire us to be thankful for art and the movies. In this category I’d put Anna Karenina, Life of Pi, and The Master.
Black Friday films are different, though not necessarily opposite. They are marvelously entertaining, extremely well-executed Hollywood productions. They bring laughter and tears, suspense and comfortable resolution, all in familiar packaging. One could compare them to the thrilling, stressful and often rewarding experience of rushing to a 50%-off television, or go even further and point out similarities to the mass-produced and well-advertised objects themselves. This year’s best examples are Argo and Silver Linings Playbook.
Now, this is admittedly a facile and silly comparison. It also doesn’t include all of the horses in the race: I would argue that Lincoln and Beasts of the Southern Wild try their best to be Thanksgiving movies but in the end they both fall more on the Black Friday side of things. The Sessions at first seems like a simple, entertaining romantic comedy but on closer inspection has a lot more meat on its bones and probably belongs in the richer category. After a while this becomes like a game, listing films and making grand generalizations about the year in cinema. Let’s hold back on that for now, as the season isn’t even in full swing yet.
However, I do think it’s an interesting way to look at the handful of big Oscar movies currently in theaters. Currently Silver Linings Playbook is at the head of the Best Picture pack, along with Lincoln and Argo. Life of Pi, meanwhile, is at the margins of that conversation. Anna Karenina seems even further distant, without much hope to pick up nominations beyond those for glitzy period costumes and production design. It’s a bit puzzling, to say the least.
Last month I wrote about failed ambition, Cloud Atlas, and minor epics at the Oscars. Yet what happens to a film with great ambition which, for the most part, succeeds? Life of Pi is not perfect. The present-day framing device falls flat and weakens the overall impact of Yann Martel’s story. Yet just about everything else is stunning, driven by revolutionary 3D images that take advantage of the new technology like no other recent film.
The enormity of the ocean, the intimidating beauty of the tiger and the magical character of the water and its hidden creatures all contribute to a bold, thoughtful project. Life of Pi doesn’t try to make the audience believe in god, despite the much-quoted line at the beginning of both novel and screenplay. However, it does strike at the heart of faith and its relationship with narrative. It dares us to believe in greater things, or at least try to overcome a perceived gap between conviction and reality. To call it this year’s Avatar is a fair compliment to Lee’s visual success, but sells the film’s thematic accomplishments short.
Anna Karenina, meanwhile, is about love. While retaining bits of the original novel’s vast political and social scope, Joe Wright’s adaptation focuses on the central romantic triangle. This dramatic tale of lust and passion, adultery and guilt is still urgent and relatable today. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay artfully picks and chooses from Tolstoy’s masterpiece while keeping it whole. Wright’s majestic stylistic ambition, meanwhile, elevates every element of the romantic epic.
To be frank, I’m surprised the film’s theatrical component isn’t getting more attention. By setting the entire narrative in a theater, however amorphous, Wright is able to choreograph and orchestrate with ease. The array of flashy and passionate performances, the lush costumes and production design, the expertly crafted editing and cinematography; all of these components interact as if dancers in a particularly extravagant production of the Ballet Russe. In that way it’s a bit reminiscent of Black Swan, another film in which none of the technical or artistic elements could truly be separated out from the whirling whole.
One wonders, then, how Silver Linings Playbook has picked up such great praise and Oscar buzz in comparison. The central love affair of Anna Karenina is tortured, complex, real and urgent. David O. Russell’s film is safe, simple and effective without much ambition. The two leads, Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) fall for each other because they’re the two leads, at the core of a family drama that hits all the necessary notes and doesn’t reach far beyond. The family is rounded out by the quiet but caring mother and the OCD father with a gambling problem.
There’s humor, there’s a great American tradition (football), and there’s a happy ending that you don’t doubt for a second. The script is manipulative and without great ambition, choosing instead to wrap everything up with a bow. Long-term implications of mental-illness be damned, ambiguity and irresolution are kept as far away from his film as possible. Life of Pi and Anna Karenina might be tightly composed, but they suggest and interact with ideas and images far off of the screen. Russell, on the other hand, shies away from anything quite so risky.
Yet while bland, Silver Linings Playbook might be the kind of bland entertainment that has taken away the biggest Oscar two years running. When it comes to Best Picture, there are Thanksgiving years and Black Friday years. The last difficult, meaty film to win was The Hurt Locker. Since then we’ve had a pair of very well-executed softballs from The Weinstein Company. Theatrical and experimental work along the lines of Anna Karenina rarely actually win the top statue, but they often come close. Moulin Rouge! may well have come very close to beating A Beautiful Mind, and it’s cartoonish when compared to Stoppard’s new screenplay. Life of Pi, meanwhile, can claim to be Avatar but with a real, serious and well-written script. It’s early yet. Where will things end up this time around? In spite of my better judgement, my money is on a shift toward one of the meatier films, Pi being the most likely.
On a Previous Round of Our Oscar Prognostication: Reality Check: The Oscars Don’t Really Reward Movies that Challenge Who We Are