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TORONTO: ‘Argo’ mix of laughs and stakes raises best picture intrigue

Argo
Seeing “Argo” in Toronto was a serendipitous treat, given the central supporting role Canada plays in the pic, not to mention the film’s tailor-made laugh line about the way true Canadians pronounce “Toronto.” (Note: Fans of “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire” will recognize the dropping of a certain consonant.)

Toronto_vote

The lighthearted roar of the “Argo” crowd at that Toronto-centric moment was one of many big laughs for a film that deftly balances terror with humor, thanks in no small part to the perfs of Chris Terrio’s screenplay by champs like John Goodman and Alan Arkin. The movie’s festival-induced leap into best picture discussion made me think about how pics with this many laughs fare when it comes to Oscar’s grand prize.

The generality is all too familiar — if you’re a true comedy, you’d best hope for a Golden Globe, because the Oscars are serious business. Just for “Bridesmaids” to get a nomination last time around would have seemed a major achievement, and it didn’t happen. Comedy’s inherent degree of difficulty is no selling point to Academy voters.

Look at what’s happened this century.

After “American Beauty,” a dark tale but one with a sardoic sense of humor, won the 1999 Oscar, we got the following grim-faced parade: “Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Chicago” (all right, not grim-faced but not a chucklefest either), “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash.” At best, there was some comic relief in that group, relief sorely needed from the serious subject matter.

We found some dark humor again sprinkled in 2006’s “The Departed” and 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” but the next two years of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker” put an end to that.

“The King’s Speech” in 2010 probably generated the most obvious laugh-out-lines for an Oscar-winning picture since “American Beauty,” and set the stage for the most overtly light-hearted film to win since 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love”: “The Artist.” (By the way, down the road on The Vote you’ll receive my lecture that unrevises the revisionist history that “Shakespeare” unfairly stole that award.)

‘The Artist” turns dark as it nears its climax, but though it deals with serious themes, no one comes away saying it’s a heavy movie. It won the Golden Globe as a comedy, appropriately.

“Argo” probably falls into “King’s Speech” territory in its ratio of jokes to drama. However, “Argo” doesn’t have to work as hard as “King’s” to explain the stakes — indeed, the Ben Affleck-directed film is edge-of-your-seat stuff from the opening moments. A couple of years ago, you might have thought the laughs risked undermining the film being taken seriously, but now, they’re this close to firming up a trend. And if you like the chances of “Moonrise Kingdom” setting up a tent on nomination day, “Argo” wouldn’t even be the most amusing film to get tapped.

It’s interesting how these puzzle pieces come together. If “Argo” makes you feel swept away, the laughs are no doubt a key reason why, even if it’s the drama that hammers your esteem for the film home.

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