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The 81st annual Academy Awards – From the Couch

Teaming the director of "Dreamgirls" with movie star/song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman brought an "X" factor to the Oscars, or at least two high-energy production numbers.

With:
Host: Hugh Jackman

Teaming the director of “Dreamgirls” with movie star/song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman brought an “X” factor to the Oscars. Yet the real innovation was seeking to impose an over-arching “How to make a movie” theme upon the evening, proceeding from screenplay through technical categories. The presenter banter felt slightly sharper than usual, and the show yielded sporadic highlights. Yet for all the promise of a bold new approach that required shrouding the event in secrecy, the 81st Academy Awards mostly demonstrated the humongous difficulty — given the obligatory elements — to reinvent the wheel.

Clearly, producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark wanted to create an atmosphere that would conjure warmth and celebrate cinema, and their supper-club approach — starting with Jackman’s musical tribute to the nominees — resembled a clever if rather gaudy Vegas revue. Jackman not only yanked Anne Hathaway out of the audience for a duet but worked the first few rows like Bill Murray’s old smarmy lounge singer bit.

Later, he crooned the entertaining Baz Luhrmann-engineered “Musicals are Back” along with Beyonce Knowles — seriously, let’s make her a mandatory presence at every major awards — and Queen Latifah niftily accompanied the necrology package. Yet what this achieved, primarily, was to buttress perceptions that this was an Oscar ceremony partially yearning to be the Tonys.

Even if you admired the effort — and I generally did — there was a strong sense this played significantly better in the room, judging by all those standing ovations. The bottom line, ultimately, is that Condon and Mark’s wrinkles seem unlikely to expunge the Oscars’ age lines or chart a new direction for the telecast.

The other major twist hinged on placing five former winners on stage to sing the actor nominees’ praises — a sort of “It takes a village to present an Oscar” scheme. Although a trifle windy, the crowded stage fostered a communal feeling while showcasing and exalting the performer honors, prolonging each candidate’s time in the limelight.

So far, so pretty good — or worthy of points, anyway, for being relatively distinctive. After that, though, Jackman initiated the moviemaking motif, starting with the script — and some funny interplay between Steve Martin and Tina Fey — before bunching art direction, costume design and makeup together in one concentrated burst.

It was a noble stab at cohesion, but the show pretty much ground to a halt there, even with Ben Stiller spoofing Joaquin Phoenix’s David Letterman appearance. A subsequent congregation of the sound and film editing categories kept presenter Will Smith on stage so long he quipped, “I believe Hugh is napping,” which sounded plausible.

Other components proved surprisingly standard, despite the elegance in structuring taped packages as “2008 yearbooks” paying tribute to genres historically overlooked in the best-picture balloting — animation, romance, documentaries, action and comedy (the last a Judd Apatow production).

To be fair, spontaneity in these settings relies on the acceptance speeches, and only a few of the recipients held up their end — none more so than Heath Ledger’s family, a moving moment despite the inevitability of the actor’s posthumous coronation for “The Dark Knight.”

Sean Penn rose to the occasion, amusingly labeling the academy “commie, homo-loving sons of guns” and delivering a plea for gay rights. That, coupled with “Milk” writer Dustin Lance Black’s own impassioned pitch, will doubtless be seized upon by cultural conservatives as further evidence why the ratings have been in decline. Yep, the Oscars sure don’t want to lose that key religious-bigot demographic.

By contrast, given her run of preliminary victories Kate Winslet might have delivered her best performance by nearly hyperventilating, though her radiance in claiming this first Oscar proved mildly infectious. There was also something sweet, if a little awkward, about the numerous other international winners, whose enthusiasm compensated for the vagaries of English — none more adorably than Penelope Cruz’s bilingual gushing.

Strategically, ABC appeared to adjust its commercial pattern, seeking to battle potential tune-out with more frequent but shorter breaks. Or perhaps it just felt that way.

The red-carpet festivities, meanwhile, continue to astound in the ratio of empty blather and fawning to actual questions, other than “Who are you wearing?” The highlight might have been Tim Gunn during ABC’s pre-show, who skipped even trying to ask anything of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and simply praised them as “the most glorious couple on this red carpet.”

Chalk it up as one of the first curious choices on a curious if predictable night.

The 81st annual Academy Awards – From the Couch

Special; ABC, Sun. Feb. 22, 5:30 p.m.

Production: Broadcast from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Producers, Bill Condon, Laurence Mark; supervising producer, Michael B. Seligman; coordinating producer, Danette Herman; director, Roger Goodman; writers, Jon Macks, Jenny Bicks, Condon, John Hoffman, Phil Alden Robinson, Bruce Vilanch; special material written by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, Ben Schwartz, Joel Stein; production designer, David Rockwell; music director, Michael Giacchino. 3 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Host: Hugh Jackman

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