Neil Patrick Harris brought an obvious bag of tricks to his role as Oscar host, and his opening number took clever advantage of talents he has showcased in stints emceeing the Tonys and Emmys. Owing more to Billy Crystal than most recent predecessors, Harris celebrated the movies in a cheeky but earnest way, incorporating both cinematic history and this year’s nominees. Yet the fast-moving sequence didn’t take itself too seriously, and proved playful enough to even spoof some of the industry’s sequel-oriented foibles. In terms of setting an upbeat tone for the evening, it was certainly a promising start.
An old pro in these settings despite his boyish looks, Harris immediately brought an infectious personality to the proceedings that let a little air out of all the puffery, and the use of film clips in conjunction with his song-and-dance routine — from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Star Wars” — gave the production a nice touch of nostalgia. Moreover, having Anna Kendrick join him and then Jack Black essentially try to shanghai the performance added an element of unpredictability. On the down side, instead of focusing on Harris, the camera found stars in the audience offering slightly perplexed reaction shots, when it should have stayed trained on the stage.
In another cautionary note, the writing in the opening section felt a bit strained. Yes, it was funny to have Harris joke about the Oscars recognizing “the best and the whitest — sorry, brightest” in light of the controversy about the dearth of minority nominees this year, but two apologies for the crassly commercial nature of the industry in close proximity (the other delivered by Liam Neeson) risked sounding more defensive than amusing. And that pun based on Reese Witherspoon’s name? Ouch.
Granted, the actual screen time occupied by Oscar hosts is invariably somewhat limited — it’s part circus ringmaster, part traffic cop — and how fondly the show is remembered often has more to do with factors outside their (and the producers’) control.
That said, first impressions suggest Harris is the right guy for what can admittedly be a rather thankless job, in terms of creating the light-hearted sense of an industry, as he put it, that has “come together to celebrate.”