Slighting ‘The Social Network’

With 18 major critics group wins and a continuing presence among Oscar conversation debates, it would look like The Social Network is a shoe-in for a Best Picture statue. With its arrival on DVD and Blu-ray 11, January, that profile is sure to continue its upward swing. Yet some in the biz are convinced that Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s look at Mark Zuckerberg’s rise from Harvard schmuck to billionaire will NOT win Academy favor come this February. Applying several suspect theories and delineating a collection of past indications and coincidental bellwethers, they are convinced that The King’s Speech, True Grit, Black Swan, and even a dark horse like The Kids Are All Right stand a better chance.

The ‘why?’ is as intriguing as the ‘why not?’ For many, the chief concern is the aging Academy membership demo. No matter what the members of the nu-media think, these dyed-in-the-wool old school cinephiles just won’t be won over by smart dialogue, great direction, pitch-perfect performances, and a topic as au currant as the Facebook phenom. Of course, they site precedent, and it’s a damn good one too – Jason Reitman’s brilliant, brave Up in the Air. Daring to turn a dark situation (the failing economy of 2009) into an even darker exploration of one man’s un-tethered life, said near masterpiece was Paramount’s big push for Oscar 2010 glory – and it had a bandwagon full of festival buzz and End of Year accolades in tow.

But it didn’t win. It didn’t even come close. With an expanded Best Picture roster, it found itself up against such formidable competition as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Pixar’s Up, mandatory Brit entry An Education, and eventual victor The Hurt Locker. For the most part, it was better thought of than District 9, A Serious Man, Precious, and the shoulder shrug “huh?” of The Blind Side (a good, but definitely not great movie). So in the competition, it was clearly Top 5 – and it, again, had the support of several critics groups. But there was a big difference between the recognition that Up in the Air received and the tidal wave of (arguably unwarranted) love shown Kathryn Bigelow’s intense Iraq War thriller.

In the case of the clever Clooney vehicle, the nods were all ancillary and also-ran. There were acknowledgements of the screenplay and the performances, runner-up and “happy to be here” lip servicing. While Locker continued an almost surreal sweep (highly unusual for a movie that came out in the earliest parts of the movie year), Up in the Air was slowly dying. Many in the industry blamed a bad marketing strategy that saw the studio hit its stride too early – say, September. Others argued that nothing could derail the bullet train toward giving Bigelow the first Oscar ever for a female director (apparently, carrying the film along on her slender shoulders). Whatever the case, a fantastic film that many thought would win the gold ended up with nothing.

Of course, the connection to The Social Network is quite tenuous, but perhaps worth noting. Unlike other years, we have yet to experience a clear publicity groundswell for any particular title. Every time it wins something (as in this week’s pick by the Online Film Critics Society), that “Facebook film” is immediately shuffled off to the side, the better to make room for other movies that need space for their grassroots to grow. The question, of course, is which movies? From a performance standpoint, it’s clear that Colin Firth and Natalie Portman are the favorites, with Christian Bale and Geoffrey Rush/Melissa Leo and Hailee Steinfeld battling for supporting player rewards. The commercial conversation for them is already set. But Picture is still a question mark, even with Network‘s utter domination.

Before you scream something silly, however, remember this. The Social Network winning over the vast majority of the world and yet losing out in the end would not be without a recent example to shut you up. In 2005, the general consensus was that Brokeback Mountain was a gimme, its subject matter and sobering look at long denied gay issues more or less guaranteed to force Oscar to take the obvious bait. It won all the major pre-Academy awards and was poised to take home the biggest prize when… Crash came along and fueled a half decade of Messageboard debate. Like the surprise win by Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan, it remains one of those AMPAS flukes that few can fathom.

And if you listen to the pundits, it’s about to happen again. Now, no one is suggesting that a film as suspect as Crash will somehow find a way to unseat The Social Network (last time we checked, there was no significant support for adding Extraordinary Measures to the Year End discussion), but we could be witnessing another instance where what critics think is markedly different than how the Academy voting turns out. Granted, Network has been on the radar since early Fall, got a wide-ranging Oscar screener push (even obscure groups got a promotional PR copy) and will benefit from the upcoming DVD drive. It continues to play a part in the final decision. But we could also be staring at a situation in which lesser wins (Adapted Screenplay? Direction?) are seen as ‘good enough’.

There is also the Inception factor to consider. While it too is playing like Up in the Air in that it seems destined to dominate the lower lines of the nomination field, it remains a red herring in the mix. Geek nation would die if Christopher Nolan were snubbed a SECOND time (they are still fretting over The Dark Knight – and with good reason..right, The Reader?) and the movie itself stands as a dividing line in a bizarre back and forth between old and new film fans. A rebellion by the younger Academy voters could see The Social Network upset by something like Inception (or Swan, say), if only to argue for the relevancy of the present pop culture zeitgeist. Then again, it would seem like a film about the founding of Facebook would be ripe for such a revolution as well.

In the next few weeks, the studio’s script will be doctored to determine the endgame. The Golden Globes will pass judgment, followed by the various guilds (Producers, Directors, Screen Actors), and it won’t be long before E! and EW and Entertainment Tonight are retrofitting their earlier junket jive to keep the hyperbole flowing. And it does work – for example, before December of last year, NO ONE had Jeff Bridges winning for Crazy Heart. It was all about Jeremy Renner and/or Colin Firth. What a difference two months makes, huh? Maybe The Social Network has something to worry about after all. For now, it’s taking home all the trophies. By February, it could be an unusual, if not wholly unexpected, afterthought.