Forget Black Swan – Natalie Portman’s real crowning performance is to be found in the romantic comedy No Strings Attached in which director Ivan Reitman asks her to convey sincere unqualified affection for Ashton Kutcher. Portman much to her credit gamely complies and though she may not have the emaciated figure bloody nails and bandaged ankles to tell of her labors the psychic scars must no doubt be just as severe.
Exhibiting strong chick-flick leanings and a rambunctious soft-R comic tone (i.e. lots of F-bombs some menstrual humor and a few shots of Kutcher’s naked ass) No Strings Attached is built around a basic relationship role-reversal: The dude Adam (Kutcher) longs for a deeper lasting commitment; the chick Emma (Portman) insists on keeping matters purely physical. Emma’s motive is a practical one: As a doctor-to-be her busy residency schedule with its 80-hour work weeks and intensive exam preparations precludes a serious relationship. But alas a woman has certain needs (foreplay apparently not being among them) and who better to fulfill them than Kutcher’s non-threatening boy-toy?
Thus a “friends with benefits” arrangement is cemented whereupon the ripcord is to be pulled on the occasion that either of them develops stronger feelings. This does not last long for soon Adam is cloyingly lobbying for escalation. Emma demurs – not out of disinterest we are told but because she’s intimacy-averse and afraid of a broken heart. Why else would she resist a more permanent attachment to someone like Adam?
Perhaps it’s because Adam as played by Kutcher is about as interesting as cabbage. And yet No Strings Attached would have us believe he’s some kind of floppy-haired Albert Schweitzer. This despite the fact that his greatest aspiration in life is to join the writing staff of a High School Musical-esque television series the shallow inanity of which is one of the film’s recurring jokes. In vain support of his cause the filmmakers decorate Adam’s apartment with various props – vintage posters books about 1920s movies a guitar that is occasionally picked up but never actually played – that hint at a depth that Kutcher himself never manifests.
Still Portman sells us on Adam and Emma’s inevitable union with every ounce of her not inconsiderable talent. (And her comic chops are legit – as those who’ve glimpsed her appearances on SNL and Funny or Die can attest.) But she asks too much. And Elizabeth Meriweather’s script while witty and stocked with some keen observations on the evolving nature of relationships in the modern age becomes weighed down by sentiment unbecoming an R-rated comedy not directed by Judd Apatow. In the end Kutcher seals the increasingly contrived deal with the climactic line “I’m warning you: Come one step closer and I’m never letting you go ” (I’m paraphrasing but not loosely) by which time the film's already lost its grip.
A small army of media reps and publicists, only mildly nervous following a government warning of possible terrorist attacks, patiently filed through metal detectors in the wee hours of Feb. 12 for the announcements of the 74th Annual Academy Awards nominations. And while the anticipatory buzz was a bit more subdued than usual, Oscar rewarded with a not-exactly-predictable crop of nominees, spreading the wealth among a wide-ranging group of films.
Last year's Best Supporting Actress winner Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) was looking fresh for the pre-dawn occasion in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Beverly Hills headquarters, wearing a smart black pantsuit. Moments before the announcements, Harden stood in the wings of the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater making excited, pixie-ish faces at one of her handlers, who had the actress present herself for a last-minute check to ensure her dark ensemble was fully buttoned and lint-free. "I love it," Harden whispered gamely as she was inspected. "You've got to do it."
Harden then joined Academy president Frank Pierson to announce the top ten categories of the 24 different Oscar races, including the first ever animated feature film category. And while two expected powerhouse films, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (with 13 nominations) and A Beautiful Mind (with eight), dominated in several categories, many nods were given to films that had already been mentioned as possible Oscar contenders by the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild and other award-bestowing organizations.
In the end, almost every major movie with early buzz came up with at least one nomination. But the real heavyweights landed in the Best Picture category, which features a highly competitive field comprised of A Beautiful Mind, The Lord of the Rings, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge and Gosford Park.
The 800-pound gorilla--or is that orc?--among the nominees was The Lord of the Rings, only the seventh film in history to snag a baker's dozen worth of nods (historically, only All About Eve and Titanic scored more with 14), but earned only one acting nod, a supporting nom for Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf. New Line, the studio behind the film, was so dedicated to getting older Academy members to screen the fantasy flick that one member told Hollywood.com he had a DVD of the film hand-delivered within hours when he told the studio he hadn't received a screening copy.
In contrast, the much smaller but equally well-marketed film (from Miramax, the grand champ of Oscar campaigns) In the Bedroom received five nominations, and while none were in technical categories and director Todd Field was bypassed, it snared three nominations in the prestigious acting categories, for Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei.
Still, it may be tough for either the fantastic visuals of Lord of the Rings or the measured angst of In the Bedroom to triumph over A Beautiful Mind, which seems to gather more momentum with each passing day. Not only did star Russell Crowe garner his third consecutive Oscar nomination as expected, supporting actress Jennifer Connelly scored her first nod, as did director Ron Howard. The film is also nominated for adapted screenplay, original score, film editing and makeup. If Crowe--who took home last year's trophy for Gladiator--wins, he'll join the elite ranks of Tom Hanks, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Luise Rainer as a back-to-back Oscar winner.
Perhaps the biggest success story among the nominations was the strong performance of Moulin Rouge, a you-either-love-it-or-you-hate-it modern musical that, thanks to 20th Century Fox's aggressive Oscar campaign and almost a year of relentless stumping from director Baz Luhrmann, scored with Academy voters, tying A Beautiful Mind's eight nods--including Best Picture. But despite accolades for lead actress Nicole Kidman and nods in several technical categories, Luhrmann, star Ewan McGregor and the film's music were snubbed.
Gosford Park also performed admirably, garnering seven nominations, including two for supporting actress. But forgotten was Memento, considered a leading contender throughout most of the year but left behind with but two noms, for original screenplay and editing. Black Hawk Down, the military drama that has seen its popularity skyrocket since its Christmas release, was also downed as a best picture contender but soared with four nominations.
There were a few interesting wrinkles in the acting categories. Provoking the biggest response among the live audience was the nomination for Ali's Will Smith, a major movie star who saw his chances at Oscar gold rise when he was tapped for a Golden Globe nom, then get murkier when he was bypassed by the SAG Awards. Smith joined Denzel Washington (Training Day) among the Best Actor nominees, marking the first time two African American men have been named simultaneously in that category.
Just ten hours before the announcements, Jon Voight was rooting for his Ali co-star. "There'll be a lot of people having sleepless nights," said Voight, out on the town in Hollywood on the night before the nominations were revealed. "I sure hope he gets it." Voight--previously nominated for Midnight Cowboy, Runaway Train and a 1978 Oscar winner for Coming Home--was more sanguine about his chances for being feted for his nearly unrecognizable turn as sportscaster Howard Cosell, and his humility was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor nod.
Conspicuously absent among the acting nominees was Voight's son-in-law, Billy Bob Thornton, who was widely praised for his roles in three 2001 films, The Man Who Wasn't There, Bandits and Monster's Ball--indeed, Thornton's multiplicity of good work may have divided his Oscar votes. His absence may have opened the field for Academy favorite Sean Penn, nominated for I Am Sam, which otherwise left voters unmoved.
Conversely, the year's most hyped actress, Kidman--like Smith, overlooked by SAG--managed to withstand her own toughest competition--herself in The Others--and pulled off a Best Actress nomination. She joined Spacek, Halle Berry (Monster's Ball), Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones's Diary) and Judi Dench (Iris).
The oft-nominated Dench may have had an added lucky charm in the form of her co-star, Kate Winslet, who was nominated in the supporting actress field for playing writer Iris Murdoch, the same character as Dench. The only other time two actresses were nominated for playing the same character was in 1997, when Gloria Stuart and--you guessed it--Winslet were singled out for Titanic.
An actor whose surprise SAG nod may have helped his Oscar chances was Ethan Hawke, whose role as a rookie cop in Training Day landed him among the supporting actor nominees. He edged out the buzzed-about Steve Buscemi (Ghost World) to join Jim Broadbent, McKellen, Voight and Ben Kingsley, still on a roll for his blistering turn in Sexy Beast.
Two grand dames from Gosford Park's Brit Pack of distinguished thespians made the cut in the supporting actress category: Helen Mirren (in her second Oscar nomination) and Maggie Smith (in her sixth!) rounded out a roster that features former Academy Award winner Tomei, three-time nominee Winslet and first-timer Connelly.
Gosford Park's maverick director Robert Altman survived a DGA snub to take home his fifth nomination in the directing category (earlier noms came for M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts). And while In the Bedroom's Field and Moulin Rouge's Luhrmann join the ranks of directors whose films were nominated as best picture but who failed to be nominated themselves, Black Hawk Down's Ridley Scott and Mulholland Drive's David Lynch managed to nab slots, joined by Howard and Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson.
In what may be a foreshadowing of things to come, each of the three nominees in the brand-spanking-new animated feature film category--Shrek, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Monsters, Inc. --featured CGI animation over the more conventional ink and paint style. Shrek was frequently discussed as a best picture nominee, but while it didn't make the cut there it was recognized in the adapted screenplay field.
The whimsical and visually inventive French film Amélie was the standout among the foreign film nominees (joining Norway's Elling, India's Lagaan, Bosnia & Herzogovina's No Man's Land and Argentina's Son of the Bride). Amélie was also tapped in four other categories, including art direction and original screenplay.
Paul McCartney proved the old Beatle still has Wings, scoring an original song nomination for his end-title track to Vanilla Sky, the much-debated film's only nod. In the Oscar ranks, McCartney still has a long way to go to match composer John Williams, who is the single most nominated living person with 41 nominations, receiving not one but two this year for his original scores for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Only Walt Disney (with 64) and composer Alfred Newman (with 45) have more.
Speaking of both Disney and Newman, the latter's nephew Randy continued his streak as one of the Academy's favorite composer-songwriters, garnering two nominations--for original score and original song--for his music from Disney's Monsters, Inc.