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Posted on Mon, Feb. 28, 2005

Rock can't break show's monotony




Chicago Tribune

(KRT) - And the winner is ... decidedly not the viewer.

Oh, as Oscarcasts go, it wasn't the longest, dullest, most inept or most controversial. It was just dreary, plodding, more economical, sure, but, winners aside, utterly forgettable.

No controversies, no surprises, under 3 1/2 hours and none of the genuine innovation that might bring this sorry spectacle into the 21st century. Even the unflappable Chris Rock seemed to fall victim to the telecast's intimidation.

His trademark loud delivery of his monologue came off more as a screech, an apparent bit of nervousness almost painful to hear. The opening gabfest itself - though thankfully brief - attempted a milder Rock meanness and only managed not to be very funny.

Rock's tweak at the unusual number of African-American nominees? "Def Oscar Jam." In a silly tirade blasting the Oscars as the only awards wherein nominees don't perform (not true if you consider the songs), Rock suggested Morgan Freeman, at least, do a shampoo commercial. Huh?

Instead of novel targets, Rock zeroed in on Michael Moore, Mel Gibson and President George Bush, swipes that were so-so in wit and so last year in timeliness.

He was merciless on Jude Law, mocking his actorly omnipresence by extolling bona fide "stars" over "popular people," which is to say, Russell Crowe vs. Law, Tom Cruise vs. Tobey Maguire and (softening his caustic edge only a tad) Denzel Washington vs. Rock himself.

Later, he "substituted" for Catherine Zeta-Jones, paired with Adam Sandler, only to manage a gender-bending bit that might have been funny 20 years ago. And Rock fell flat attempting the postcommercial jokes so second nature to Billy Crystal: After "The Aviator" won two awards, Rock said that Howard Hughes, if he were here, "wouldn't shake hands with anybody."

His pretaped interviews of regular folks at the nearby Magic Johnson Theatre were better, a mostly African-American bunch who hadn't seen the major nominees, thought "White Chicks" was the year's best and delivered amusing imaginary Oscar speeches.

Indeed, they were arguably better than the real thing. Rock shouldn't be blamed for the overall tedium. The cautious, note-reading numbness that has taken over the acceptance talks in recent years continued, minus those gaffes and goofs so worthy of the morning-after water cooler. After winning for "The Aviator," elegant Cate Blanchett offered a smidgen of freshness when she hoped her son would grow up to marry the daughter of Martin Scorsese, the picture's director. (We sort of like you, we sort of like you.) But the duo behind "Sideways," Alexander Payne and co-author Jim Taylor, offered none of the movie's droll thorny humor. Jamie Foxx's moving tribute to his grandmother was a rare exception.

The new gimmicks to liven up the broadcast made no impact. Having nominees stand onstage doesn't make better live TV or sabotage the formulaic monotony of the broadcast. It saves time, reducing those walks to the stage, but it was about as useful a change as the other "new" idea, implanting presenters in the audience, a device the Emmy and Grammy shows already do better. (At least it gave Rock a winner: "Next year they'll be giving them out in the parking lot."

Every year, the masterminds try to fix things by tinkering at the edges. What the show needs is a complete revamp, reducing the number of on-camera awards a la the Tony telecast to the handful viewers care about: picture, actors, directors and writers. Then, and this idea is hardly original, why not all but hide the auditorium ceremony behind clips and cinematic celebrations, long montages saluting past winners and pictures, an entire show devoted to movie excerpts like the clever but all too brief one Dustin Hoffman narrated to open this year's show?

The tributes to Johnny Carson and Sidney Lumet were respectful and bland. And Prince, as a presenter: polite, well-dressed and boring.

A rare bright moment came when Robin Williams arrived with a tape over his mouth, an allusion to network pre-censorship of a musical sendup of the controversy over cartoon character SpongeBob's sexuality. Williams made the point verbally: "They tell me now that SpongeBob is gay. SquarePants is not gay. Tight pants maybe. SpongeBob Hot Pants? You go, girl." And then there's Donald Duck: "little sailor top, no pants, hello."

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Sid Smith: sismith@tribune.com

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© 2005, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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