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Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes in John Madden's Shakespeare in Love, one of the rare comedies to win an Academy Award.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes in John Madden's Shakespeare in Love, one of the rare comedies to win an Academy Award.

Academy Awards

Grown-ups laugh, Oscar doesn't Add to ...

Oscar doesn't have much of a funny bone, but Elvis does. Elvis Costello, that is, who put it nicely in one of his lyrics: "I used to be disgusted/ And now I try to be amused." What he's saying, of course, is that a comic perspective is a mark of maturity, a wiser take on the world and its dire doings. This is different than Horace Walpole's old saw that "Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." Instead, it goes further to suggest that comedy, at least the best of it, is an intrinsically grown-up mindset that demands intelligence and real effort to sustain - "I try to be amused."

Well, Oscar couldn't disagree more.

Scan the history of the Academy Awards, zoom in on the Best Picture winners, and you'll hardly find any comedies, barely a chuckle to be heard. The last was Shakespeare in Love in 1998, although it's actually more of a romance and, after all, had the Bard's imprimatur - Joe in Love likely wouldn't have cut it. Before that you have to go all the way back to Woody Allen's Annie Hall in 1977. So, 1 1/2 examples in the past 33 years. Even the great Chaplin, a comedic genius with a populist touch, couldn't overcome Oscar's dour prejudice - not a single one of his iconic films topped the list. Ditto for Preston Sturges and his caustic wit - so many great pictures, but nary a Best Picture award.

No, Oscar much prefers drama, by far the most decorated genre in the trophy case. Sure, occasionally, he'll fall for a musical, even a cheesy one like Oliver!, or tumble for sheer spectacle, even a silly circus act like The Greatest Show on Earth. Mainly, though, Oscar is a "feeling" sort of fellow. You might even call him "touchy feely" since, like many of his brethren in Tinseltown, there's one sure way to Oscar's heart, one type of movie he loves above all others. Which is? Easy, it's Hollywood's favourite too - the tragedy with a happy ending. The classic example? Even easier - Titanic. The whole ship sinks, but Kate Winslet floats. My, but Oscar loved Titanic.

This year, he may love Avatar, James Cameron's latest. Or maybe he'll go for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. It's a case of either/or - nothing else is really in the running - and the contest keeps getting billed as David versus Goliath, the big-budget opus against the worthy art flick. In truth, that simple contrast is a bit bogus. Bigelow's ticking-time-bomb set pieces are the stuff of pure commercial suspense, while Cameron's last frontier tropes are shrewdly rooted in enduring aesthetic archetypes. More to the point, whichever of the two he chooses, Oscar will be able to tap easily into his tragic feelings - oh, see what an awful toll war takes on both the warrior and his surroundings - and then register a satisfying modicum of righteous "disgust."

But what if, for once, Oscar decided not to feel but to think, to dare to be amused? Okay, given his choices, he could hardly vote for District 9, an aliens pic with allegorical pretensions, or for Inglourious Basterds, a bombastic take on the Nazis - they're just escapist adventure. Nor could he go for An Education or Precious or The Blind Side or the superior kid's stuff of Up - in their different ways, they're all tales of triumph over adversity, hope-and-inspiration yarns.

However, as luck would have it, amusement - grown-up amusement - is readily at hand this year. Indeed, I would argue that the most mature, most relevant and most serious films on this year's list are two comedies: Jason Reitman's Up in the Air and the Coen brothers' aptly titled A Serious Man. Both are masters of disguise. The first hides its gravity within the bubble of an apparent rom-com; the second pretends to be a period piece about your classic Jewish nebbish. Then both pull the rug out from under us.

Narrower in focus, Up in the Air zeroes right in on the way we live now - unemployed or in danger thereof, with the company axe perpetually threatening our slim neck. Set in this milieu, the picture jokes just like a romantic comedy; it's got the banter and the charm and the love triangle and the star presence of George Clooney, just like a romantic comedy. But then, once the audience is settled into a seemingly comfortable groove, the script boots us out of our complacency into a realm much darker than we imagined. Turns out the laughs have a sombre mission and a clearly stated purpose: "We're here to make limbo bearable." Yes, serious stuff.

Darker still, A Serious Man zips past limbo straight to hell-on-earth. This nebbish puts Woody Allen's to shame. He's a latter-day Job, beset on every side by an escalating dreck-storm of trials and calamities; yet, unlike his Biblical equivalent, the guy has no sparring partner, no God to argue with - it's just him and his ineffectual patience against a cruel, selfish, oblivious world. In the face of such insanity, the Coens invite us to do the only sane thing: to laugh, first at him and then, when it's our turn to play Job, at ourselves.

In these two comic movies, there's more universal hurt than anything in The Hurt Locker. Which is precisely why Oscar will snub them. They're the exact opposite of his heart's desire - not tragedies with a happy ending but, yikes, comedies with a sad ending. So when the Academy awards Cameron's opus or Bigelow's art, cheer if you will or boo if you must or, better yet, do what Oscar doesn't - savour the comedy, deliberate and inadvertent, of the whole antic evening. If it matters, that's what I'll be doing, trying my damnedest to be amused.



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