In last week’s article, I discussed the love the Internet has for kneejerks, or immediately hating a movie based on the flimsiest and earliest of (mis)information. While I focused primarily on superhero movies and other nostalgia-fueled franchises in that piece, that’s only a small part of the story. We (see the previous article for the significance of that pronoun) express our displeasure about a lot more than the visual design and overwhelming moroseness of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. With Oscar season just around the corner, it’s important to remember that we can direct our inherent biases towards even the tiniest of films.
As film viewers, we understand the concept and necessity of Oscar bait. After all, the Oscars by its very nature is a self-congratulatory affair where Hollywood celebrates Hollywood, so it makes perfect sense to honor the movies that are just as self-aggrandizing as the ceremony itself. For 11 months out of the year, the studio can throw whatever ginormous-budgeted, larger-than-life mindless nonsense they want onto the silver screen, but for one month, it’s time to be serious and pretend to care with help from The Weinstein Company and their awards-minded subsidiaries (e.g. Warner Independent Pictures, Fox Searchlight).
Oscar bait films are a very specific subgenre of (melo)drama, and one that has been parodied countless times, yet studios remain either blind or apathetic to the fact that most of us either know their gimmicks (because we genuinely like film) or don’t care (because we don’t). We all know the conventional hallmarks of the Oscar bait movie. On the ‘name’ side, we have respected character actors looking for the acclaim they should have gotten for smaller works and beloved celebrities “uglying” themselves up, as well as directors who bare the title “-Nominated” or “-Winner” before their name. In a more keyword vein, we have period piece, Britain, war, death, and tragedy all culminating in a pretentious miasma of prestige that imbeds every frame of even the trailer. (Plus the endless critics quotes letting us know just how important this movie is.) However, the biggest element of all Oscar bait pictures is SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS. Oscar movies are all (again, see my previous article for my application of broad strokes to these topics) a con so that filmmakers and performers can show that they can take on hot button issues, albeit generally in very superficial and shallow ways.
As with every year, 2015 has and will give us a bevy of Oscar-bait films. On a personal level, the one that felt the most hollow to me (from the trailer alone) was Freeheld. The movie, which is based on a true story (one bell), is about a lesbian (another bell) partner’s fight against an unfair system (another bell) to earn the pension of her dying-from-cancer (another bell) wife. While that type of story is not inherently bad (and I’m sure it’s important and relevant and whatever other adjectives people like to throw at these types of movie), the trailer rings “award season” far louder than it does “heartfelt character drama.” Navigating between the two is often a fine and difficult line; just a little bit more (or less) subtlety can mean the difference between a remarkable experience that can stick with us (Starred Up, Spotlight) and a joke (Conviction, Truth).
Admittedly you can’t base everything on a trailer, but Freeheld was cliché to the point of being distracting. For as devastating as the real story must have been, the trailer rose to the level of parody. We have the lone supporter who learns to grow (Michael Shannon), the masses of one-dimensional villains, and the quirky side character/attempted “scene stealer” (Steve Carrel as a gay Jewish attorney who seemingly falls off the tricky tight rope that separates character from caricature; it’s always fun when movies that attempt to be socially aware end up playing into the over-the-top stereotypes they purport to enlighten us about). Notably, Freeheld ended up being an example of another type of Oscar bait – the type so blatant, where all the trailers and promotions will look up and shout “Honor us!” and even the most gullible critics will whisper ‘no.’
Of course, Freeheld is not the only film this year to comfortably make its home in this sub-genre, but it’s arguably the most obvious without the hoity-toityness to back it up. Movies like Suffragette (about those who fought for women to get the right to vote in England in the early 20th century) and The Danish Girl (about transgender pioneer Einar Wegener) have similar qualities, but they don’t seem nearly as cloying. Part of the reason is that they appear more artistically filmed. Sure, their quality of EVERY SHOT IS DRAMATIC AND IMPORTANT might easily lend itself to bombastic pretentiousness, but if well done, at least they can be interesting or beautiful to look at. Freeheld, on the other hand, seems visually flat. While a lack of humor can be a death knell for many movies, playing up the HEAVY EMOTIONAL DRAMA tends to work better in this realm- at least moreso than throwing in Michael Scott clowning around (a notable contrast to his more understated performance in last year’s Oscar baity Foxcatcher). And of course, Europe. What is it about that cursed British accent that makes people want to throw statuettes that way?
It’s hard to say that any of these films are or will be bad because most of them are extremely technically proficient with good acting. However, it’s important to note that while many of movies receive overall positive reviews, their average ratings tend to be in the moderate 6-7/10 range (see: The Danish Girl at 82%-6.4/10 and Sufragette at 72%-6.6/10; for all these movies’ attempts at being “better,” their scores are not that much more impressive than Spectre‘s 63%-6.4/10). Despite all the effort put into these films, they often lack something very important. That indescribable thing that turns a character into a real person rather than an idealized version of a cross-bearer. (For as good as Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance was in The Imitation Game, it was in many ways a disservice to Alan Turing and his story to highlight his sexual preference over his remarkable genius.) Or the ability to discuss an issue with subtext rather than hammering the point flat. (E.g. Crash). Or a script that puts as much care into creating original and memorable dialogue as it does letting us know how crushingly important everything it has to say is, or a screenplay that isn’t treated as perfunctory because the film can coast on the story alone (both of which applies to most biopics).
Or maybe it’s because these movies often lack the touch of creativity and uniqueness that makes movies special to begin with. All of the elements necessary for a narrative are there, but the most important element of film is absent. If we’re not going to movies to shut our minds off and enjoy a temporary diversion, we want to be absorbed in something that is special and unique. All the fantastic set design and whisper-speaking in the world alone cannot do that for us. It’s why we remember movies like 1996 Best Picture Nominee Fargo over 1996 Best Picture Winner The English Patient and still discuss 2010 Best Picture Nominees The Social Network and Inception more than 2010 Best Picture Winner The King’s Speech. But we, the general (or even specialized) audience are not the fish being lured by Oscar bait. These films are made so that Hollywood can feel like they’re involved and important, no matter how fraudulent it seems to those of us on the outside.
Of course, Oscar movies are not the only small movies that end up receiving (and being worthy of) our ire. Quirkiness is yet another very difficult line to walk, and very few can do it well. Even those of us who swear by Wes Anderson turn our noses up at the Zach Braff line of forced independence cuteness. This year’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl came across as one of the better examples in recent memory of this especially uncomfortable brand of “Like Me! Tweet Me! Hashtag Me!” Sure it was well-reviewed, but the trailer and concept made it seem imbued with the same type of ersatz sentimentality as many of the Oscar bait pictures, except with the even more abhorrent quality of forced hipness. Again, we’re dealing with someone’s imminent mortality, but this time we’re going to have fun with it! Teenagers! Filmmaking! “Cool” soundtrack! It could be a fine film, but it came across as unappealing on a visceral level. At least with effects-driven movies we can appreciate the colors and deafening sound; with these types of films, we’re spending two hours alone with people we hate from the word go.
While those of us who like these smaller films like to act superior to those who subscribe exclusively to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Transformers, we’re just as susceptible to making possibly unfair (though likely fair) judgments about the residents of our local art house. We might wait for a full trailer, but we’re all ready to count these movies out long before they hit theaters. I myself am guilty of this. For as terrific as the reviews of Brooklyn are, it simply does not seem like the type of movie I could get myself excited about. I’m sure it’s fine with a myriad of great qualities and personal emotions unlikely to be found anywhere near the underwhelming Spectre, but “fine” doesn’t inspire me to go to the theater or even put it on my Netflix queue. Yet I remember the credits accompanying Writing’s On The Wall … even if I blank on the utterly forgettable theme song.