Oscar season can remind one a bit of a Rotary Club bake-off.
There, there’s generally a lot of talk about new recipes, and everyone
excitedly looks forward to trying something new and perhaps a bit exotic. Yet
when it comes time to hand out the blue ribbons, it’s often the most tried and
true recipes, or at least some slight iteration upon an old favorite, that
carries the day.
Awards voters have proven time and again their
love for epic-scale productions (Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The
Return of the King… errr, The
English Patient?), and Oscar and Golden Globe history is littered
with easily identifiable trends, hence the annual entertainment editorials that
start trickling out about this time of year regarding actors and actresses gaining
weight, or playing “ugly” or disabled. More to the point, though, once a performer
scores their first nomination, it begets them extra opportunities, certainly,
but also just more looks from critics and audiences, meaning that the
nomination process becomes somewhat cyclical, with previous honorees typically
(if not undeservedly) getting more and more acclaim.
Road, then, has many if not most of the basic ingredients of a
traditional Oscar bait film. It stars Joaquin Phoenix — twice nominated for an
Academy Award, most recently in 2006 for his turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line — and Mark
Ruffalo (above left), a habitual awards season flirter, and the winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics’ New Generation Award in 2000 for his performance in You Can Count on Me. Its
female lead is Jennifer Connelly, 2002’s Best Supporting Actress winner for her
role in A Beautiful Mind.
The second female lead? Mira Sorvino, 1996’s Best Supporting Actress winner for
her turn in Woody Allen’s Mighty
Aphrodite. The film is directed, meanwhile, by the respected
writer and filmmaker Terry George, himself twice Oscar nominated, and coming
off of a critical hit with important political overtones in the form of 2004’s Hotel Rwanda.
Then there’s the Oscar-bait subject matter itself — a
grief-saturated drama with plenty of big emotional scenes, the movie is adapted
from John Burnham Schwartz’s novel about the accidental death of a child, and
how the adults closest to the situation variously deal with the heartache,
anguish, misery and guilt. Reservation Road‘s main problem, diagnosed in macro fashion, is that the seams of its oh-so-cutely constructed Oscar inducement show a little too obviously; the film recalls, in its own tangential and component ways, Miramax’s
late-millennium run of Lasse Hallström movies (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and The Shipping News), each progressively more treacly and inert than the one before it.
The movie’s score, from composer Mark Isham (A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, Crash),
swells in all the appropriate places, but George’s direction and the
film’s script are so busy telling us what to feel — and when to feel it — that a certain contrarian resistance develops. Phoenix’s performance is the single real standout thing about Reservation Road,
which otherwise hits all the standard aggrieved dramatic beats in
elongated fashion, and lacks any satisfying, stalking thrill that would
qualify it as a cousin of Neil Jordan and Jodie Foster’s recent The Brave One.
So why the half-hearted sales job by distributor Focus Features? It’s
called playing the odds. After sticking a finger to the wind with
critics — both in advance of its bow and just after its limited release — plans to take the movie wider, and give it a deep and sustained
theatrical release across the country, were basically scrapped. Focus
also had Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright’s buzz-heavy Atonement
on their holiday season slate. With advance notices on each of those
films — and in particular the latter, considered an early Oscar
frontrunner — trending markedly better, it was easy for Focus to turn
its focus elsewhere, away from Reservation Road. For the slightly more fleshed out review and awards season assessment, from FilmStew, click here.