Oscar: Eyes on big prize

Life's a blur as Oscar approaches

With Oscar time upon us, a certain blur increasingly surrounds the best picture category. Though some folks are pissed about it, I don’t share their indignation.

While the Academy has graciously created separate categories for documentaries and animated features, producers still salivate for those magic words, best picture. I don’t blame them: A banner proclaiming “best doc” somehow doesn’t quite resonate, does it?

Besides, both content and technology have added to the confusion. When a $170 million movie like “Polar Express” comes along pioneering “performance capture” technology, are its characters “real” or animated? (Neither, really.) Then you have “The Incredibles,” whose animated characters vividly depict, not animals, but “real” people. I think both movies will go for best picture.

Then there’s the ubiquitous Michael Moore, whose films qualify more as performance art than as documentaries. His movies are not about “truth,” but rather Michael Moore’s perception of truth. As such, they’re more akin to Oscar winners like “Platoon.”

The documentary branch has always snubbed accessible subjects like “Hoop Dreams” or “The Kid Stays in the Picture” in favor of arcane topics, so as docs move into the mainstream, it’s inevitable that the best picture category beckons. And Academy voters might as well welcome the blur rather than fight it.

* * *

No filmmaker likes to admit it, but movies are products of their moment. Classics like Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” or Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” or William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” struck a chord at their instant of release, but had they come out two years earlier or later, they might have landed with a thud.

This comes to mind upon seeing Jude Law in the remake of “Alfie.” In its time (1966), “Alfie” was an event. The relations between the sexes had hit a seismic shift, guys were on the prowl (especially guys with the Cockney charisma of Michael Caine) and life was instantly about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Jude Law is terrific as the “new Alfie,” but his character seems like a living anachronism. He hustles hotties — hardly a revelation. He has never seen a Viagra commercial (why does he visit only gay doctors?). Neither he nor his girlfriends have ever heard of birth control. Finally, his only wealthy girlfriend rejects him because (surprise!) she prefers boy toys.

OK, “Alfie” resonated three decades ago, but didn’t the filmmakers ponder the following: Today’s Alfie would be more credible as a woman who’s fiercely dating and discarding her Rolodex of guys — not the other way around.

If the studios want to stubbornly recycle plots, they should remember the cardinal rule: Remakes require updates. Wouldn’t “Around the World in Eighty Hours” have been a better title for that recent Jackie Chan clunker?

* * *

How can two friends who started in the same place veer off onto such sharply divergent paths? Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were golden boys after “Good Will Hunting.” They could write, they could act, they were sharp and articulate in interviews. They shared the same agent, Patrick Whitesell of Endeavor (also sharp and articulate).

And look at them now. Damon is a $20 million player as a result of “The Bourne Identity” franchise. And Brother Ben? A “Gigli” can happen to anyone, but with Affleck it’s become a syndrome. Witness “Jersey Girl” and “Surviving Christmas.” He’s Mr. Bland in films, a strident Kerry supporter in politics — and, of course, there was Jennifer Lopez. Talk about mixed messages!

Now Ben is showing survival instincts. He’s trying to vanish from public view to finish a script, “Man About Town,” a low-budget indie about a talent agent whose wife is cheating on him. (But, for a bright guy, he still can’t keep his foot out of his mouth. In the November Details, Affleck opines: “I’m tired of doing the movies I’m best known for…” No kidding!) Matt Damon, too, is going the indie route with an espionage drama called, “Syriana,” but again taking the more orthodox route. George Clooney is also in “Syriana” and Steven Soderbergh is the producer. And, of course, Damon is coming off of “Ocean’s Twelve.”

Two different guys, two different routes on a dicey playing field.

* * *

As of this month, this column has appeared weekly for 15 years. That’s a long run by the standards of newspapers or of show business. Over that time our habits and attitudes have evolved, and so have those of the readers. Today’s reader is on information overload. There’s too much to assimilate and too little time to deal with it. Readers want shorter stories with quicker “explains.”

To accommodate this, Variety is now running tighter, more focused stories. Fewer will jump to back pages. This column, too, will undergo an overhaul. Instead of dwelling on a single topic, it will deal with three or four, and we’ll try to make our point with greater economy.

Time is fleeting; we get it.

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