When Robin Williams joked about the five-second delay, he needn't have worried. Indeed, the guy with his finger on the button could have easily nodded off policing an Oscar-cast notable only for its workmanlike efficiency.

When Robin Williams joked about the five-second delay, he needn’t have worried. Indeed, the guy with his finger on the button could have easily nodded off policing an Oscar-cast notable only for its workmanlike efficiency.

After last year’s awkward ceremony — when the outbreak of war provided an uncomfortable juxtaposition of actual reality TV as counterprogramming, and viewing declined precipitously — the producers served notice early that the Academy Awards’ 76th edition would be very much business as usual.

From the opening film montage — which saw last year’s source of controversy, Michael Moore, get stomped into the ground — to host Billy Crystal’s been there, sung that medley nominated film medley, predictability surrounded the proceedings. (As a sign of solidarity, by the way, this review was written on a two-paragraph delay, meaning the really good stuff is just ahead.)

Yet if the show lacked spontaneity, it’s a good bet that’s precisely what producer Joe Roth and the motion picture academy hoped to achieve — a nice, pleasant tribute to the movies, where the good-natured jabs at President Bush and inside barbs about Michael Eisner didn’t come close to drawing blood.

Then again, the awards themselves helped siphon life out of the broadcast, for the most part following everyone’s “will win” ballot.

That ranged from early acting nods to Tim Robbins and the perpetually bubbling Renee Zellweger (what does it take for a star to get played off, anyway?) to “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’s” slow-rolling landslide, which built toward an inevitable coronation as its historic trophy tally mounted.

“It’s now official: There is nobody left in New Zealand to thank,” Crystal observed, in his best adlib, about two hours in, alluding to the film’s Kiwi crew.

The weight of necrology — including nicely done tributes to Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn — also kept this year’s awards somewhat rooted in the past.

Among the good ideas was presenting the best-song nominees in two groupings, highlighted by Annie Lennox’s knockout performance of the eventual winner from “Rings.” Will Ferrell and Jack Black also collaborated on an inspired bit putting lyrics (“You’re boring”) to the music used to cue long-winded award recipients.

Not surprisingly, other than Sean Penn’s offhanded mention of nonexistent WMDs, this year’s volley of political fire again came from the documentary category, as Errol Morris — accepting for “The Fog of War” — spoke of his fear that we are “going down a rabbit hole once again,” referring to Vietnam. Crystal quickly defused the moment with a joke about Morris’ tax audit.

If the awards possessed limited spark, the various pre-shows tried far too hard to convey a breathless sense of enthusiasm, with ABC’s half-hour countdown giving Joan Rivers’ E! antics a run for their money in the vacuity department. Seemingly channeling Teen magazine or perhaps looking for a date, “Access Hollywood’s” low-watt bulb Billy Bush didn’t interview celebs so much as accost them, shouting “Watts up!” at a stunned Naomi Watts and “Wow!” at Angelina Jolie.

Not to be outdone, co-host Maria Menounos nearly trumped Janet Jackson’s display of Super Bowl cleavage. After an awkward staged bit with Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson doubtless spoke for the multitudes when he asked, “Are those real?”

The arrival shows on KABC, KTLA and E! ratcheted up the emphasis on fashion, with designer Randolph Duke providing instant analysis on KABC, while KTLA featured a “fashion cam” along with Mindy Burbano harassing attendees in the “limo cam.”

For sheer camp, however, it’s still hard to top Rivers, whose wince-worthy moments were enough to inspire thoughts of flipping to the Lakers game, or even the Lyndon LaRouche infomercial on KCBS.

“Tell me about your private life. Good or bad at this moment?” Rivers dropped on a wide-eyed Holly Hunter, though the hostess did enjoy a moment of clarity when she sputtered, “Who will win? Who will lose? Who gives a damn.”

Ah, out of the mouths of, er, whatever. But at least it deviated from the script temporarily, which is more than can be said for this year’s Oscars.

The 76th Annual Academy Awards

ABC, Sun. Feb. 29, 5:30 p.m. PST

Production

Broadcast from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood by ABC. Producer, Joe Roth; executive producer, Michael B. Seligman; coordinating producer, Danette Herman; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, Jon Macks, Billy Crystal, Beth Armogida, Dave Boone, Ed Driscoll, Carol Leifer, Billy Martin, Marc Shaiman, David Steinberg, Norman Steinberg, Scott Wittman; production designer, Roy Christopher; music director, Shaiman. 3 HOURS, 45 MIN.

With

Presenters: Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Pierce Brosnan, Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey, Sean Connery, Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Tom Cruise, John Cusack, Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Diane Lane, Jude Law, Tobey Maguire, Ian McKellen, Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Steven Spielberg, Ben Stiller, Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Liv Tyler, Naomi Watts, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Oprah Winfrey, Renee Zellweger. Host: Billy Crystal.
Performers: Annie Lennox, Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, Sting, Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett.

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